As we celebrate National Work and Family month, I congratulate many enlightened employers who understand most of the demands of working parents. You offer flextime, you offer telecommuting, and you may even afford paid maternity/parental leave. These are wonderful practices that give parents the ability to respond to numerous needs and demands of family. But -- and yes, there is a "but" -- families need you to understand and truly value the energy and time it takes to grow healthy, responsible, resilient children. To put it simply, it is not just what you do to support your employed working parents. It is how you do it.
In the follow-up study (2008) to my dissertation (1994) on employed and at-home mothers that involved 123 mothers over a 14-year period, the strongest emotional pull on employed mothers was their lack of availability to their children. This emotional pull becomes stress when a "crisis" occurs at home and the needed time for family is outside of the current practices most organizations offer employees and/or the agreements about flexibility the employer and employee mutually accept.
Employers who want to move from good to great need to understand and truly value parental efforts that do not fit neatly into clock hours. By appreciating the importance of these efforts, you will be able to support more readily the occasional unplanned family demand that requires parental attention outside of "normal" hours --requests to leave early, take a few hours off, or continue a project at home.
OK, you may be thinking, I understand how this approach helps the employee and the family, but what is in it for me and my company? Understanding the answer to this question and acting upon it is what moves an employer from good to great.
Negative emotional energy -- being distracted, unfocused, less productive on a job -- occurs when a parent feels s/he needs to attend to an important family matter but cannot because of office demands or practices. If you allow the parent to deal with the unanticipated family concern, the negative emotional energy will not develop. For example, a mother may have a regular schedule that allows her to leave the office earlier than others so she can be home with her children for dinner. This is important to her as it allows her to be a highly valued employee and still be very involved with her children daily.
The tradeoff for leaving early, however, is that she has to go back to the office after dinner almost every night to stay current with her work. And she has a position that is not easily performed from home. Unfortunately, on one of these nights she plans to return to the office after dinner, a child has a meltdown. Whether it is an assignment that is due, materials needed immediately for a project, a reprimand from the coach, or being dissed by a best friend, the child is NOT happy! In fact, the child is miserable.
And mom? She feels terrible and she feels torn. She wants her child to feel better. She wants her child to have a plan to handle the situation. She wants her child to feel competent and have self-esteem restored. She wants all these things addressed and to be part of addressing them as an involved and loving mother.
Yet she also feels stress from the employment side. She knows she has work to do at the office. In fact, she is expected back soon -- time is limited. She has this "special deal" with the employer that allows her to leave early and return to work later. She does not want to abuse or even look like she is abusing that deal by not going back to work.
What are her options? Leave it all to dad, knowing he is (or is not) excellent about handling these situations and return to the office? Know that dad can handle it -- will certainly try -- but like Anne-Marie Slaughter in her Atlantic Monthly article (June, 2014) "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" feels that her presence is needed and not return to work? Talk quickly with dad about tactics to be utilized and leave? Listen and then discuss quickly with child promising a more thorough discussion later? Or, let the child know she's loved, can handle the situation and just leave?
One result is a given. When that mother returns to the office, if she does, she is not the same employee she was when she left. She will not have the energy and focus she normally has when she returns after dinner. Dealing with the child's meltdown is still top of mind.
Employers: What if she had the opportunity NOT to come back to the office that night? What if you valued and understood that she address the "crisis" at home? What if you thought it was important that she takes care of matters at home before returning to the work at hand and had communicated that to her, so she was not feeling guilty about focusing on the child's issue rather than returning to work? What if you totally trusted that she would complete the project on her own time... maybe much of it late that evening after all had settled down? Can you imagine the support and reduction of stress your employee would feel? And the enhanced gratitude toward you, the employer, for allowing her to maintain the working/parenting balance?
Try this more expansive understanding of parenting in honor of families in National Work and Family Month. You'll like it. And so will your employees.