How workplaces can extinguish the flames of parental burnoutby
While we are familiar with employee burnout, a distinct, relatively new syndrome, ‘parental burnout’, is on the rise. Lauren Haigh explores how leaders can ensure they aren’t fanning the flames and are instead cultivating supportive workplaces.
While this growing awareness is catalysing progress, leaders can't rest on their laurels. There remains a lot of work to be done, and now there’s a new wellbeing issue to contend with: Parental burnout.
Six weeks of balancing parental duties and work has left many parents exhausted. The sweet relief of the summer holidays drawing to a close has been marred by the so-called ‘concrete crisis’.
The closure of more than one hundred schools due to weak concrete just a few days before the start of term could signal breaking point for some parents.
What is parental burnout?
Juggling children and work is no mean feat, leaving many overwhelmed and exhausted. With parental burnout, this exhaustion rises to severe levels.
Merryn Roberts-Ward, Head of Global HR Consulting, shared her experience: “Though it may seem like I have it ‘together’ on the outside, parental burnout feels like a chronic condition I have to face on a daily basis. It means I am perpetually exhausted, constantly fighting anxiety and depression and continually wondering how I can muster up the energy”.
A key cause of parental burnout is experiencing high levels of stress with little or no support or resources available to help cope.
While you can quit a job, you can't quit being a parent, which can make those struggling feel trapped.
So, what can employers do to help?
A key cause of parental burnout is experiencing high levels of stress with little or no support or resources available to help cope
1. Recognise the importance of R&R
The unrelenting demands of parenthood and interrelated disordered sleep can take their toll. Recent research suggests that exhaustion is a possible catalyst to the development of parental burnout.
Businesses are coming to better understand that celebrating rest and giving employees a chance to recharge is important. As Nike’s senior manager of global marketing science, Matt Marrazzo, told staff: “Taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well and staying sane”.
Allowing and, better still, encouraging regular breaks and providing dedicated spaces that employees can retreat to when required will help curb exhaustion and boost productivity.
2. Flexibility breeds commitment
It’s no secret that employees crave flexibility. For parents, this is a sacred word.
Childcare can be a contentious issue; a 2021 poll found that 66% of parents would be more likely to accept a job offer from an employer offering flexible scheduling.
By prioritising policies that support flexibility, such as extended parental leave, flexible hours and offering the ability to work from home, companies can help alleviate stress for existing employees, improve retention and make their company attractive to would-be employees.
“My workplace offers flexible arrangements, allowing me to attend to my daughter when she falls ill without fearing repercussions,” Merryn said. “This level of flexibility is something I wholeheartedly endorse for every organisation. After all, the more support employers provide to their staff, the greater the loyalty and commitment they'll receive in return.”
A 2021 poll found that 66% of parents would be more likely to accept a job offer from an employer offering flexible scheduling
3. Make expectations great again
This leads on nicely to the need to change the expectation that being a ‘good’ employee means being constantly available.
By releasing employees from the expectation that they must always be ‘connected’ and instead fostering a culture where moments away from the screen to breathe and recharge are normal, employers can help establish healthy boundaries for their employees.
This might mean cultivating a culture where employees have the flexibility to work earlier in the morning or later in the evening, accommodating school and nursery runs.
We all know there are so many more ways of working outside of the typical 9-5 and giving parents the flexibility to work around parental responsibilities can prove beneficial for employee and employer: being inclusive demonstrates you care.
The bottom line is that we need to reconsider the meaning of a healthy work environment. This includes taking a look at hours, place of work and how jobs get done.
4. It's good to talk
Prioritising open and honest communication between leaders and employees can help establish safe spaces where working parents feel heard and supported in voicing concerns.
Regular one-to-ones encourage ongoing, candid dialogue and better position employers to spot signs of parental burnout – including physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and lack of motivation – and take helpful action before things escalate.
By releasing employees from the expectation that they must always be ‘connected’ and instead fostering a culture where moments away from the screen to breathe and recharge are normal, employers can help establish healthy boundaries for their employees
5. The right environment
Annie Davies is a sensory designer and consultant who is a single parent to an Autistic teen and has ADHD herself. She pointed out that parental burnout can be exacerbated by sensory processing issues and said that workplaces can do more to cater to specific needs.
“Having sensory based questionnaires or interviews, written by someone who can frame it correctly will make this possible. Having catch ups quarterly to check in will ensure these needs continue to be met,” she said.
Davies shared examples of triggers and adjustments:
- Claustrophobia – sitting too close to other people or a busy office
- Noise – open plan offices, allow headphones or desk screens when needed
- Light sensitivities – desk away from a window or breaks away from the screen
- Having a sensory calm space where no work is permitted to encourage breaks
“With the rise of people having late diagnosis of neurological conditions and high numbers of people off work due to occupational and parental burnout, workplaces need to create more sensory sensitive spaces and adaptable working hours for parents, this is why a lot of people go to self employment, especially after lockdown,” she said.
6. Learn about parental burnout
Knowledge is power and by learning more about this condition, employers can mindfully ensure that environment and culture are maximised to support employees with parental burnout.
The condition remains poorly understood; research on parental burnout is nascent, having begun in the 1980s.
Surprisingly, a recent study suggested that parental burnout has ‘little-to-no direct impact upon work outcomes’.
However, the study itself states that ignoring the parental demands of employees is ‘ill-advised in the context of the significant body of evidence to suggest that organizational parental support can facilitate greater personal coping and subsequent occupational outcomes such as organizational commitment’.
Clearly, more research is needed to better understand the condition and, specifically, its impact on the workplace.
Ultimately, employers have a duty of care and by knowing the signs and putting measures in place to assist staff that may be struggling with parental burnout, they can establish supportive workplaces where all employees can thrive.