“You think you’re busy—just wait until you have kids!”
As irritating as this pronouncement can be to those without children, there is a certain grain of truth in it. Having children really does add a hectic new dimension to life.
But, there’s work to be done. And so, new parents must find a way to balance the demands of their job with the demands of their tiny, toothless new overlords. What role can their employer play? How can the company culture support new parents and set up a win-win situation for everybody?
To fully support new parents, companies must understand the challenges parents face, and then go about addressing those challenges in a helpful and cooperative way.
The Challenges New Parents Face
It can sometimes feel like there are never enough hours in a day. This feeling becomes an everyday state of affairs once children enter the picture, with parents looking back at their child-free days and wondering what they were doing with themselves before they had kids.
“Discussions about health and wellness revolve so heavily around time,” says Kirsten Wright-Cirit, Founder and Owner of Your Wellness Scout. “You’re told to ‘make time’ for so many things while managing the reality that with children, things just take longer.” In addition to not having enough time, parents often find that scheduling becomes a nightmare, as daycare pickups and doctor’s appointments inevitably conflict with work obligations.
Having a parent stay at home with the kids is no longer a feasible option for many families, leading to an often-frantic search for suitable—and affordable!—childcare. Even once parents manage to grab a coveted childcare spot, the worries continue: late meetings can mean missed pick-up times, and a lack of backup childcare can spell disaster if the child is too sick for daycare that day.
Sleeping and Eating
Most anybody can function at work after one night with only a few hours of sleep. But what about two months of snatching inadequate scraps of sleep in between feedings, with no idea when things will improve? If the baby won’t sleep for more than an hour at a time, the parents are missing out on the deep, restorative sleep that refreshes and restores the brain, leading to irritability, memory problems, and impaired cognitive function. Researchers have found that just one night without sleep resulted in brain cells slowing down. Months of broken sleep? It’s not a pretty picture.
The brain fog of sleeplessness is only exacerbated by questionable post-baby food choices. Fatigue and a lack of time make it all too tempting to just order pizza (again) instead of cooking healthy meals. Parents may also find themselves skipping meals due to a lack of time.
Pregnancy and childbirth are not a walk in the park, and many new parents feel the effects of childbirth well into the first year and beyond. Whether it’s physical effects from a c-section, a weakened pelvic floor (when every sneeze is a gamble with incontinence), hormonal shifts, or the mental health tribulations that the post-partum period can bring, having a baby is not simply a matter of delivering the baby and immediately “bouncing back.” This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many new mothers simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off through FMLA, and as a nation, we have not prioritized paid maternity leave.
No matter how welcome a baby can be, it still results in a whole new set of demands on a parent’s mental energy. Parents often find themselves keeping a laundry list of items in their head: doctor’s appointments, too-small sleepers that have to be replaced, worries about whether the baby is eating enough, mental reminders to buy more diaper cream. Add to that the inevitable shifts in personal relationships, the effort to balance work obligations, and the ever-present worry about whether they’re doing things perfectly, and it’s no surprise that a new parent’s mental bandwidth is at capacity.
How Company Culture Can Help New Parents
Sadly, some companies are avoiding these issues by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, in a manner of speaking: They develop a prejudice against hiring women in their 20s and 30s (i.e. “childbearing age”).
As it turns out, this is an enormous mistake, says Kirsten.
“Parents can be some of the most efficient and productive workers out there. Employers may think parents take more sick days or leave earlier, but when they’re working, they’re working. These are people who value every minute and know how to get their work done well with a minimum of wasted time or procrastination. In fact, parents provide a really healthy model of work-life balance, of not letting work constantly take up personal time. When supported, they are in the present, mindful in their work, and truly focused on the task at hand. Ultimately, this results in a more efficient, focused employee base that knows how to leave work at work.”
Not only is the employee base more efficient and focused, but they’re also loyal. Parents know a good thing when they see it, and if their employer is truly supportive and helpful, those parents will stay with the company for the long haul, resulting in greater retention and the corporate boost that comes with keeping experienced, devoted people.
So, how can company culture support these new parents and bring out their best?
Giving new parents (indeed all your staff) as much flexibility as possible is a guaranteed recipe for loyal, engaged staff. When staffers can schedule their own workday and/or work from home, it becomes exponentially easier for them to balance work and parenthood. It’s also of great benefit to employers, as parents can still fit in a full workday around appointments, childhood illnesses, and other demands. Even just being able to take time out for an hour-long midday nap can make all the difference between a productive, happy employee and one who is barely functional.
Even flexibility with regular scheduling counts for a lot. Nobody enjoys a 4:30 pm meeting, but those late-day meetings are especially inconsiderate to parents who run the risk of being late for daycare pick-up if the meeting runs long. Higher-ups need to be flexible and thoughtful, making every effort to ensure that meetings never spill over into after-hours time. If a late meeting must take place, offer employees the option to teleconference, so they can head out early, pick up their child, and dial into the meeting from home.
Rethink Maternity Leave
Coming back to work while dealing with a colicky six-week-old and a not-yet-healed c-section incision, versus coming back to work with a happy three-month-old who’s sleeping through the night and a body that’s mostly healed? It’s a night and day difference. Helping employees maximize their maternity leave, whether it’s offering paid leave, spacing out their paychecks, being more generous with vacation days, or granting more opportunities for overtime pay during pregnancy—it all results in employees coming back happier, better-rested, and ready for work.
Speaking of work, be sure to help ease the transition back into the workforce. Instead of expecting an employee to hit the ground running after maternity leave, help them adjust by offering a lighter workload or even part-time work for the first little while until they get back into the groove of things.
Help with Childcare
Contrary to common perception, offering on-site childcare doesn’t have to be a massive expense. The CEO of Patagonia pulled back the curtain on their childcare program, revealing that between tax benefits, employee retention, and improved engagement, they recoup 91 percent of the costs of their childcare programming. JPMorgan Chase estimates 115 percent in savings, and KPMG sees a return of 125 percent—yes, those companies are making money by offering on-site childcare.
The benefits of on-site childcare are multifold. Employees are happier and can focus more easily on their work, knowing their child isn’t far away. Mothers are more likely to return after maternity leave, knowing they can still see their babies whenever it’s needed—an enormous benefit for mothers who breastfeed. Later meetings (and the panic about pick-up time) aren’t as much of an issue. And considering that the average family pays almost $12,000 a year in childcare for an infant, employees are much less likely to give up that benefit by leaving the company, resulting in higher retention rates.
As we’ve mentioned, new parents rarely have time to focus on their own wellness. A comprehensive wellness program can provide them with the time and tools to take better care of themselves, whether it’s a lunchtime yoga class, wellness coaching, or an information session on quick and healthy meal ideas.
“These types of things empower employees to reinvest in themselves so they can be their calmest, most focused, best selves,” says Kirsten. “Plus, it doesn’t only aid new parents—it aids all employees, providing an even larger ROI.”
Companies are discovering that by taking employees’ physical and emotional wellness into consideration, and by providing thoughtful, well-managed support, they’re reaping the benefits: happier, more engaged employees who stick around for the long haul. By applying this same philosophy with new parents, companies can help these valuable employees not only balance parenthood and work but excel at it.