By VICTOR LOH
Five years ago, Clarissa was a “high-potential” gunning for a directorial level position in her company. Then she did the unexpected; she had two children in succession.
“I was always highly ambitious. Even after my son was born and we were struggling to cope with two kids, I still had my heart set on that promotion. But as the kids got older, it became clear I couldn’t be both a star at work and at home too,” she sighs.
So she traded boardroom wheeling and dealing for PTA meetings and committees. “I don’t regret putting my kids first but I can’t say that I don’t miss having a career… I look at women who have it all and I feel a twinge of envy. How do they do it?”
Studies conducted in the United States have found that the majority of working parents are walking time bombs, health-wise. They suffer from, among others, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, burn-outs, heart palpitations, migraines, nagging coughs, sleep deprivation and hives.
According to a survey of working parents, 88% of the participants suffer from a stress-related health problem; 59% have anxiety issues; and 43% struggle with depression.
It is a global problem even if the statistics available are States-wide. When I conduct workshops about parenting with emotional intelligence (EQ), the most common struggle parents say they face is lack of time, which then leads to stress both at work and at home. Many – and this includes fathers too – feel they are barely managing.
And how are the kids coping? Well, the fact that Oprah created a show called Kidnapped by the Kids where kids confront their work-obsessed parents, hints that all is not good on the home front.
It is a painful irony. Children feel neglected because parents spend so much time and focus (remember it’s not always about physical time; you can be at home but mentally and emotionally at the office!) on their jobs.
Parents in turn, believe they have to work hard for the children and family. It is a never-ending cycle that destabilises the family and makes every member feel helpless and hopeless.
If you’re looking for scientific proof, here’s one from Malta. A research study titled Experiencing Childhood in Malta by Discern, the Institute for Research on the Signs of the Times, found non-typical work schedules and parenting proxy negatively affecting children.
The study reported that instead of parents and children having lifestyles that complemented each other, children had to completely adapt to their working parents’ way of life.
As a working parent, I can sympathise. My wife and I are fortunate to be self-employed so we have the flexibility to dictate our working hours somewhat. But even that doesn’t spare us from the challenges faced by working parents! We often work late into the night because we want to accommodate the children’s bedtimes.
I believe in situations where children are exempted from negative consequences, it is because one or both parents are making huge sacrifices, like giving up their careers or intentionally arranging their schedule around their family needs – which in turn leads to the kind of stress we talked about earlier. Not surprisingly, mothers eventually decide they have to choose between their careers and children – like Clarissa.
At a time when talent is scarce, companies really cannot afford to lose their employees. Neither can they brush off the struggles working parents face because the effects cascade from the home to the work place, affecting productivity, quality of work, work environment, staff dynamics, and so on.
Research repeatedly confirms that when things are going well in their personal life, employees perform much better at work – and vice versa.
So what would help these distressed working parents?
Flexible working hours, work-from-home arrangements, on-site crèche, part-time options, time-off and extended maternity leave are among the common things that make the wish list. “I think if I was allowed to telecommute, I would have continued working,” says Clarissa. “I would have been happy to settle for a less high profile role and bid my time until the kids are older. At least I would still be in the workforce.”
But in Malaysia, expecting these options would be a tall order. Although much has been said about making it easier for mothers to rejoin the work force, most companies still do not offer alternative employment choices.
“My company allows fathers to opt for flexi scheduling but the job itself doesn’t seem to support this. Plus there is a lot of social pressure and fear that it would affect career advancement. I mean, would you promote someone on flexi-scheduling to a senior sales manager?” shares a father of three boys whom I met at a parenting workshop.
And even when these options are available, the working parents’ dilemma does not necessarily get resolved. A study conducted in the USA found that even with one or more of these perks, parents still feel stretched.
Are companies caught in a “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” conundrum then? I believe we have to move towards more liberal and flexible working options that will encourage greater work-life balance – not just for parents but all employees. It is a global phenomenon.
But the reality is we are a long way off from achieving this. To be fair, it is not just costly for companies to do so but also requires a massive rethinking about the way people work and corporations operate. These things take time.
So while companies are not yet able to fulfil the working parent’s wish list, they need to sincerely demonstrate through other means that they care. Parenting workshops and family enrichment programmes go a much longer way with this group than departmental dinners, sports club and off-site team building activities that take them away from their family.
Be a partner to your employees at home if you want them to be partners in your business.