Ask any parent and they’ll say the same thing; as amazing and rewarding as it is to have children, parenting is messy, stressful work. But it’s also not their only form of work, given that in 65% of U.S. families, both parents are employed—whether it’s out of necessity or passion for what they do.
Between childrearing and working, parents are often left with little time for themselves, especially when kids head back to school in the fall. And while this lack of personal time can lead to exhaustion at home and in the office, it’s not the only thing causing parental burnout.
What’s Stressing Working Parents Out?
This answer is multifaceted, but perhaps unsurprisingly, parents’ top concern is: their children.
However, it might not be in an expected way.
In a 2022 Calm Business report, the rates of kids experiencing heightened anxiety or depression skyrocketed to 31%—and even higher for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ youth. At the same time, about half of all mothers and a third of all fathers reported thinking about their children’s mental health constantly while at work, impacting their productivity.
But even if parents aren’t feeling anxious about their families, they’re likely facing chronic stress in other aspects of their lives.
Inflation and Rising Costs
Financial anxiety has become a huge contributor to parental burnout, especially this back-to-school season.
While inflation has started to stabilize since 2022’s record-high rates—when it peaked at over 9%—many parents are still struggling to keep up with the cost of living. In a recent survey, Deloitte found that this drop in disposable income has caused over half of all parents to spend less on essential back-to-school supplies this year.
Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that this financial anxiety can subsequently translate to children, increasing their likelihood of developing mental health issues and creating a feedback loop of stress that quickly leads to burnout.
But how exactly does this impact the professional lives of working parents?
The Impacts of Chronic Parenting Stress on Productivity and Engagement
Just like typical employee burnout can impact an individual’s personal life, parental burnout can have severe consequences on an employee’s life and experience at work.
The first and clearest effects of chronic parental stress are the mental health issues that come with it. From brain fog and emotional exhaustion to depression and anxiety, 64% of working parents struggle with their mental health—91% of whom agree they’re less productive as a result.
In addition to their individual stress and burnout, parental employees are also tasked with juggling family responsibilities as well. For instance, Calm Business found that between a quarter and one-third of parents have missed (or are interrupted during) work days to tend to their children’s mental health, adding to their already heightened personal and work-related stress levels.
All of this overwhelming stress inevitably bleeds into the workplace where it can negatively impact not only performance but also motivation, job satisfaction, and of course, holistic wellbeing. Multiply this burnout across each exhausted parent in the workplace, and it’s easy to see how it can start to have serious consequences for company culture and overall wellbeing.
Unfortunately, this type of burnout can also be the most elusive. Even if an employer is also a working parent, they might not be able to spot the same symptoms in their staff.
What Does Parental Burnout Look Like?
Nobody can be the perfect parent and employee at the same time. A sleepless night with a restless child can cause anyone to feel tired, foggy, or even frustrated at work. But when parents face overwhelming exhaustion without time to rest and rejuvenate, it can quickly lead to severe, irreversible burnout.
This might sound familiar to some working parents, especially since 66% of employees who have a parental role meet the criteria for burnout. While this isn’t a clinical illness that requires a trained professional to diagnose, it can still be difficult to spot.
But even though employers can’t objectively measure this all-too-familiar feeling of “running on empty,” they can look out for signs and symptoms in their organizations’ working parents.
Severe Burnout Symptoms
Parental burnout affects everyone in different ways, but there are many common symptoms that employers may be able to pick up on, including:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Lack of focus and low productivity
- Chronic stress, anxiety, and/or depression
- Insomnia and sleep deprivation
- Changes in behavior
- Irritability or frustration
- Emotional distancing and isolation
- Feelings of guilt or detachment
If managers notice any of these signs in their employees, offering support and providing access to mental health resources like in-person or virtual therapy are great immediate options.
Recognizing Parental Burnout in the Workplace
While the symptoms listed above are solid indicators of parental stress and burnout, they’re not always on full display in the workplace.
For instance, an employee may recognize they’re feeling irritable or frustrated on the job, but may hold their tongue to avoid conflict or judgment. To detect the warning signs of parental burnout, employers need to pay attention to more subtle cues, such as:
- Lack of communication
- Difficulty setting boundaries
- Excessive people-pleasing
- Stretching oneself too thin
- Irritability or emotional distancing
If a working parent is feeling overwhelmed, one of the first signs is a breakdown in communication—whether it manifests as a lack of transparency around deliverables or low socialization.
A burnt-out parent might also have trouble establishing or maintaining boundaries. As a result, they often overextend themselves and work beyond their limits, escalating stress levels.
As parents continue to work through overwhelming exhaustion, they might start to feel frazzled by all they need to do, causing the quality of their work to drop.
All of these issues compound as parents begin to feel resentment toward their job or role as a parent. This can then spread throughout the organization and at home, creating a snowball effect.
Of course, employers often only notice these burnout symptoms once a working parent has already started showing signs of chronic stress. Here are some more proactive steps managers can take to spot the sparks that could ignite parental burnout:
- Check in with working parents regularly to see how they’re doing.
- Avoid setting or demonstrating unrealistic expectations.
- Don’t let workloads exceed mental loads.
- Look out for overwhelming schedules.
- Research and provide ample mental health resources and support.
These steps are a great start, but to truly transform the workplace into an environment fit for the modern parent, employers will need to develop a more strategic plan.
How to Help Working Parents Mitigate Burnout
While plenty of self-care resources are available to help parents prevent burnout, the responsibility of solving this mental health challenge shouldn’t rely entirely on them. Employers, on the other hand, have the power, ability, and unique opportunity to support their working parents in a variety of ways.
Here are seven steps organizations can take to help alleviate some of the stress working parents face:
1. Isolate Signs to Look Out For
The first step is understanding and identifying the signs of parenting burnout in employees. The list of symptoms above is a great resource for knowing what to look out for, but it’s also general and may not apply to every situation.
Instead, employers must get to know their workers as individuals. Once they can pick up on habits and behaviors and recognize changes, it’s a lot easier to spot burnout before it fully manifests.
2. Educate and Encourage Communication
As managers learn more about the signs and causes of parental burnout, it’s critical to share their knowledge with employees and co-workers.
Educating others about the dangers of burnout can help raise awareness and encourage them to prevent it in their own lives. These types of workplace wellness conversations are essential to foster a healthy work-life balance.
At the same time, speaking openly about burnout can alleviate fears of consequences for sub-optimal performance while empowering employees to get the help they need when they’re feeling stressed.
3. Show Employees They Are Valued
Raising children is a thankless job, but that shouldn’t be the case with a parent’s regular occupation. As their employer, creating a positive, supportive environment is crucial by recognizing hard work and regularly demonstrating gratitude.
Employers should also encourage open and honest communication. For instance, parents shouldn’t be afraid to prioritize their family responsibilities or obligations. After all, many employers are parents too, and they should be able to empathize with other parents’ situations.
4. Allow Flexibility for Work-Life Balance
As any parent knows, work flexibility is crucial for maintaining a work-life balance. Offering flexible work arrangements, whether it’s the option to work from home or adjust their work schedules, can be a huge benefit for parents juggling childcare with their jobs.
But flexibility doesn’t have to mean a huge change. Instead, it could mean shortening meeting times or setting up individual focus hours so employees aren’t caught up in lengthy meetings.
5. Offer Childcare Services and Assistance Where Possible
Whether parents are worried about their children at work or they have to actively call off to attend to their needs, there’s no real separation between family life and work for parents. Employer-sponsored childcare can help alleviate these stressors while ensuring kids are cared for during working hours.
This could take the form of on-site child care centers, reimbursements, or even a bring-your-kid-to-work policy for those times when a planned sitter has to cancel at the last minute.
6. Provide Realistic Maternity and Paternity Leave
Maternity and paternity leave are crucial for supporting new parents. With substantial paid leave time, families have the chance to focus their attention on their new addition and get used to new routines.
Not only does this give employees critical bonding time with their children, but it also allows them to return to work when they feel ready and prepared. And once parents return to work, it’s also crucial for employers to offer reasonable, comfortable, and sanitary accommodations, especially for mothers who may need to pump and store milk throughout the day.
7. Implement Caregiver Wellness Initiatives
Finally, employers can implement holistic wellness initiatives to help all employees, especially parents, maintain healthy habits and routines.
While many traditional wellness programs focus on physical wellbeing, mental health is becoming a top priority for many companies. However, these still only make up two of the six essential pillars of wellness.
A holistic wellness program targets each aspect of a working parent’s health and wellbeing, including their finances, occupation, social life, and purpose.
Empower Working Parents With a Holistic Wellness Program
At WellRight, our corporate wellbeing experts are here to help transform workplaces using a holistic wellbeing approach. Tailored to businesses and employees, our purpose-driven initiatives address each aspect of a person’s overall health and wellbeing for a well-rounded approach to prevent parental burnout.
Reach out today to learn more.