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Back to school? 3 ways managers can support working parents

September 23, 2021 - 10 min read


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#1 - Let them vent

#2 - Manage your own frustration

#3 - Don’t lower your expectations or overhelp

Support your people, keep your talent 

“I’m sorry to cancel another meeting at the last minute,” a colleague recently messaged me. “There was a positive COVID case in my daughter’s class, and I had to pick her up immediately.” School has only been open a month, but this is the second “immediate” pick-up he’d done due to a COVID-contact imposed 10-day quarantine. His daughter has been home from school more than she’s been in it.

What was supposed to be a relief — the kids are back in school!! — has caused more anxiety and anger than most of us saw coming. Everyone under 12 is still unvaccinated and vulnerable. Masks, which would protect kids, are hotly contested in many parts of the country. School and daycare policies are still evolving weekly and often vary between elementary, middle, and high school, adding more complexity for families. For many, distance learning wasn’t necessarily better, but it was predictable.

We’ve been here before, only now, working parents are depleted. We’ve been managing so much for so long, and now we are being asked to manage for longer. It feels unsustainable.

Maybe this goes without saying, but the health and well-being of working parents is incredibly important. These are the people who are both contributing to our economy and raising the next generation of humans. Here’s how managers can help.


Let them vent

Ask them how they are doing. Even though we tend to think about work as a place of reason, these days people want to talk about their lives and share their feelings at work.

More than that, though, research shows that when we stuff our feelings down (also known as “emotional suppression”), our focus, intelligence, and memory suffer. Pretending to feel fine at work even when we are actually feeling fury or worry takes an enormous amount of energy and self-control. Most working parents don’t have any extra energy or willpower these days, so don’t expect them to waste what they do have by hiding their emotions. 

As managers, we can help our employees do their best work by allowing them to talk about what they are going through right now, and how they are feeling about it. Just being given the opportunity to name our emotions can help those emotions dissipate. This is the “name it to tame it” technique.

You don’t need to offer solutions to your employees' parenting woes, just compassion.

You don’t need to offer solutions to your employees' parenting woes, just compassion. Last week I asked a member of my team how I could support her given her own Covid-back-to-school ordeal. Her eyes welled with tears. “Just the fact that you care, and that you understand how hard this is, and that you asked is all I need right now.” 

Maybe you want to offer compassion, but just don’t know where to start. No problem! 

Expressing compassion includes four components: 

  1. Pay attention to your colleague’s suffering. Tune in to what they are feeling right now. If you aren’t sure what they are going through, just ask them. 
  2. Let yourself feel moved by their suffering. Pay attention to what emotions come up for you. There is no need for you to share what you are feeling, just tune in to your own emotions after you tune into your colleague’s.
  3. Declare your desire to help, or to relieve their suffering. 
  4. Be ready to take action and deliver on your offer to help.

Venting feelings and offering compassion might seem a little touchy-feely, but it’s actually an extremely effective management strategy. Research shows that people often respond to expressions of compassion from their manager by doubling down on their work, and by investing more energy and effort into their workplace.

Manage your own frustration

Odds are that you are a little sick of all the upheaval that Covid continues to wreck on your workplace as well. It can be annoying when co-workers suddenly aren’t available when you expect them to be, or when they show up depleted and bleary-eyed — especially if you’re picking up the slack. Turns out, global pandemics are hard. Bringing acceptance to the difficulty of this situation can really help.

To practice acceptance, we surrender our resistance to a difficult circumstance (in this case, it might be a distracted or depleted team member) and also to our own emotions about the situation, like frustration or anger. This means we allow things to be as they are right now — while also acknowledging our feelings about them.

To be clear, acceptance is not the same as resignation. Accepting a difficult circumstance doesn’t mean that the situation will never get better. We accept the present reality — perhaps it’s that working parents are often called away from work right now — not an imagined future. We don’t accept that it will be this way every day until the end of time, or that this is anyone’s ideal state. 

When we accept whatever is actually happening at this moment, and also our feelings about a difficult situation, it frees us up to move forward. To engage creatively and to solve the problems at hand, rather than remaining stuck in our resistance, frustration, or fear about the future.

Don’t lower your expectations, and don’t overhelp

You might be itching to jump in and compensate for a working parent who is struggling to get their work done. It can feel good to help the people around us whom we see as needing help. But helping when we haven’t been invited to help gives us a false sense of power, and it can distract us from our own problems. This is why Annie Lamott says that “help is the sunny side of control.”

When we overhelp people, we unconsciously send them the message that we believe that they can’t do it without us. This can make them feel criticized, which can create self-doubt and kill motivation at a time when working parents need encouragement more than criticism.

So instead of over helping, boost working parents’ motivation by supporting their three basic psychological needs related to self-motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Support their autonomy by letting them retain control over their workflow and schedule. Encourage them to invent new ways to get things done. Flexibility is this era’s management super-power, so exercise it. 

If you are worried about underperformance or that they are taking advantage of your flexibility, don’t lower your expectations. Deal with underperformance directly by seeking to understand what’s holding them back, and then what they need to do to address the root causes. Is it stress? Lack of training? Lack of flexibility?

Ask working parents questions that help them build a vision for success given the constraints of the pandemic. What does success look like? What will they need to do to succeed? Where will they need to ask for the help of others?

Remember: If you are trying to boost productivity and work quality, you’ll be better off focusing on resilience — helping working parents cope with exhaustion — than you will by worrying about whether they are getting special privileges or taking advantage of your flexibility.

Managers can encourage competence by helping working parents build the skills they need to succeed in this environment, and by showing them the progress they’ve already made. Focus on what went well and what was accomplished, not what wasn’t. How did they grow in their jobs last year? What did they get done last year despite total upheaval? Show them.

Finally, foster relatedness by creating connection and belonging. Many working parents are feeling pretty vulnerable right now, and when their managers are also vulnerable by sharing their own experiences, it can solidify a sense of belonging. This is the time to show working parents how important they are to the team; they need to know that they matter.

Keep your talent

The “Great Resignation” is here. It’s real, and it’s probably being driven in large part by working parents. An estimated 15.5 million Americans quit their jobs in the three months leading up to the reopening of school this year. The greatest increase in resignation rates were by people between 30 and 45 years old. And Gallup recently found that 48% of employees are actively searching for new opportunities.

Chances are, you really need the working parents on your team. They likely bring stellar time-management, problem-solving, negotiation, and people management skills, and they would be tough to replace in this job market. So this is the time for managers to double down on investments in their people. Fortunately, supporting working parents (and supporting employees in general) during this difficult time will likely have a huge payoff—for your team, your organization, and for society as a whole.

BetterUp offers specialized coaching for parents as well as group coaching experiences to gain support and insight to help working parents be great parents and great employees. Our resources offer guidance for being the best manager and leader you can be, too. 

Learn more about the “Finding Peace Despite Chaos” Coaching Lab.

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Published September 23, 2021

Christine Carter, Ph.D.

VP Content Development, BetterUp

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