For the vast majority of Americans, work and family have long stood as two distinct spheres, coexisting in uncomfortable isolation and connected by the frail string of a commute. Once clocked in, workers were expected to leave their personal obligations at the office door and focus on their professional to-do lists. Conversations about kids and families were limited to brief water-cooler chatter; leaving work to care for family members was allowed grudgingly, if at all. The United States is one of just a few countries that doesn’t mention the word “family” in its Constitution -- and in our work culture, the omission shows.
Or, at least, it did.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation and compelled office workers to conflate their cubicles with their home desks -- or, in some cases, their kitchen tables -- the traditional degree of separation between our working and family lives has all but disappeared. Leaving your home life by the door is a little difficult when you literally cannot walk through said door.
Since social distancing began, countless parents have shared their stories about how difficult it is to achieve their pre-pandemic productivity levels while simultaneously juggling their childcare responsibilities.
“Attempting to work full time while rooming with, feeding and educating one or more children during the pandemic is not going well — not for me, and not for most people I know,” New York Times journalist Farhad Manjoo shared in an op-ed in the early months of the pandemic. “Though we are embarrassingly indulgent of self-care, neither of us feels as if we are doing anything other than failing at everything, every day.”
The challenges shouldered by two-worker households weigh particularly heavily due to the lack of available childcare. Before the pandemic, almost 80 percent of dual-career working parents relied on some form of paid childcare. Now, many find themselves struggling to shoulder two full-time workloads -- one professional and one parental.
“I know I am not working to the best of my capabilities,” Llyra De La Mere, a market-research analyst who lives with her husband and 12-year-old autistic son, commented for an article. “I’m forgetting things constantly. I’ve lost every semblance of organization. It’s embarrassing and troubling and I’m not proud of the work I’m doing.”
Manjoo and De La Mere’s experiences are hardly unique. One survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) in late April and early May reported that a full 46 percent of parents with children under 18 said that their stress levels were high, compared to just 28 percent of surveyed childless adults.
Another recent study conducted on working parents in Belgium found a significant prevalence of parental burnout. This condition creates unusual feelings of exhaustion, emotional detachment, and a lack of joy around parenting. The researchers found that the parents who tended to have the most burnout symptoms tended to be confined with small children or teenagers.
The personal impact is significant -- as are the professional consequences. Earlier in 2020, the HR analytics company Syndio released a shocking report that 14 percent of working women and 11 percent of men were actively considering quitting their jobs because of work-family conflict relating to COVID-19. The short- and long-term costs this potential turnover rate poses to businesses, careers, and the economy at large are considerable.
The last year has made it abundantly clear that parents can’t balance full-time jobs with full-time parenting. But, at the same time, quarantine has also illustrated the flaws of our formerly strict separation between work and family spheres.
The same study that provided insights on parental burnout found that 82 percent of parents surveyed said that they were grateful for having extra time with their kids; for 30 percent of fathers and 36 percent of mothers, stress rates actually went down as parents were able to enjoy quality time with their children without needing to manage a cramped professional schedule.
These findings suggest that perhaps we can find a balanced compromise between our pre-pandemic dichotomy and the current work-home overload. Maybe the future of American work culture is one that acknowledges familial responsibilities, rather than asking employees to leave them at the proverbial office door.
As writers for Unicef recently noted: “Family-friendly business policies and practices in the workplace play a vital role in keeping kids out of poverty. They support and enable working parents to reconcile family responsibilities and work demands so they can do the most important job of all: raising their children.”
As defined by the UN agency, FFPs include features such as paid parental leave, paid sick leave, breastfeeding support at work, high-quality and affordable child care, livable wages, and other government-supported child benefits. The global nonprofit further notes that companies who have, over the years, established strong FFPs tended to adjust to the post-pandemic working world with more ease than family-aloof companies.
Others have concurred on this point. To borrow an explanation from writer and Harvard Business Review contributor Julia Beck:
As late as February, when companies committed themselves to family-friendly benefits by offering flexible workdays, back-up-care reimbursement, and remote working options, and by prohibiting end-of-day meetings, they typically did so in the name of recruitment, retention, and brand culture. But no longer. Some of these programs grew out of the economic realities of a formerly low unemployment rate, they’ve left organizations well-positioned for the quickly shifting workplace dynamics of Covid-19.
Family-friendly policies make it easier to support workers through the stresses of parenting during -- and beyond -- a pandemic. As a result, they facilitate better retention and workplace performance, and further limit the company’s contribution to employee/parent burnout.
Our experience demonstrates that there may be room for a new kind of family-friendly culture, one that doesn’t isolate or superimpose the family spheres but instead creates an overlapping design. Maybe we haven’t prioritized family in the past -- but now we have a real understanding of its importance to the worker as a person. We can and should do better; we must craft a working culture that allows Americans to live and work in an environment that accepts them, childcare stresses and all.