A palliative nurse who counseled people on their deathbeds spent over a decade recording their greatest regrets. One of the most common statements she heard from both male and female patients was this:
"I wish I hadn't worked so hard."
Parents naturally want what’s best for their children and often work tirelessly to provide them with everything they could possibly want or need. In the process of doing so, they often feel they’ve sacrificed the very thing their children want and need most: time and attention. Many feel they are missing out on precious time with their families and key moments in their children’s lives. Parental guilt is deep and universal. And it’s also at an all-time high.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems to their breaking point in many households. On-and-off again lockdowns and shifting work arrangements have left parents scrambling to find flexible solutions for schooling and childcare. And the costs of all of this are ballooning out of control. Child care is outpacing inflation by an average of 3%, making quality options harder to obtain for many families. In some areas it can cost twice that of the average mortgage.
We wanted to know more about the struggles working parents are facing. In December 2021, BetterUp Labs collected data from 584 full time working parents in the US who had at least one child under the age of 10. In our study sample, 49% of respondents were mothers, 51% were fathers, and <1% were non-binary. These working parents were mostly married in partnerships (90%), with 10% not in a partnership. What we found was that a significant portion of working parents are feeling guilt, but some groups feel it more acutely than others.
What the data say:
Nearly 18% of parents expressed some agreement with the phrase, “I feel guilty about the quality of the care my children have in order for me to work.” Of those who expressed guilt 58% are mothers and most are working outside of the home (61%).
Women have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of the pandemic and the resulting economic upheaval. Broadly speaking, stereotypical gender roles left women bearing most of the burden of virtual homeschooling, cooking, cleaning, and parenting. These additional domestic responsibilities amount to what is essentially a second full time job. The result has been a generation of women that are experiencing severe feelings of burnout and stress.
Aside from women, the demographics reporting the highest rates of guilt (within group) are South Asian (33%) and Black participants (30%), whereas the lowest rates were reported in Latino/Hispanic participants and white participants.
One reason why Latino/Hispanic parents and white parents have lower levels of guilt could be that historically, their children are less likely to be in center-based care arrangements than other groups. Both white and Latino/Hispanic families have higher rates of children in the care of relatives as their primary child care arrangement than other groups. Additionally, children from Latino/Hispanic and white households spend less time in non-parental childcare than children from other ethnic groups. The reasons for these choices are complex but seem to include both economic and cultural factors
Overall, 30% of those expressing guilt belong to an underrepresented minority group (URG), but when we consider these numbers relative to the demographic breakdown of our participants, we find that people from URGs are significantly overrepresented amongst those expressing guilt.
Specifically, rates of guilt amongst white participants were 10% lower than we would expect given sample-wide rates, while our URG parents are 33% more likely to express guilt than we’d expect. When broken down by specific demographic groups, some interesting patterns emerge.
While the data doesn’t reveal the exact reasons behind these disparities, Asian, Black, and Latino/Hispanic communities bore the brunt of COVID-19 in terms of infection rates but also the lingering economic impact and fallout of school closures. It seems reasonable to conclude that these factors have shaped both the need for and feelings of parents returning to work.
What parents and organizations can do:
The good news is that the data does not support the myth that children can only succeed when they have one or both parents caring for them at home. In fact, one Harvard study found that the adult children of working mothers had better careers and were happier than those who had stay-at-home moms
The research also found that adult daughters whose moms were employed and worked outside the home are more likely to be employed themselves, hold supervisory positions, and even earn higher salaries than the daughters of those whose mothers stayed at home. The sons of working mothers seem to be influenced positively as well. They spend 50 minutes more each week caring for family members, select mates that are employed, and hold more egalitarian views on gender than sons raised by mothers who did not work outside the home.
While this is no doubt welcome news to working parents, it likely isn’t going to alleviate the feelings of guilt they wrestle with. What working parents need most is help and support. Managers are in an ideal position to help working parents find balance between their personal and professional responsibilities.
Managers that lead with empathy and compassion build inclusive environments that can reduce stress and anxiety levels for working parents by giving them the support they desperately need. When working parents feel supported at work, they see a 28% boost in wellbeing. An inclusive leader sets the tone and models the behaviors for their team to create an environment where each person feels seen, valued, supported, and able to contribute.
And parents aren’t the only ones that benefit from inclusive, supportive managers — organizations benefit as well. When managers practice empathy and support their employees, intent to stay scores among working parents increase by 13%.
Lastly, companies need to recognize that traditional benefits and wellness packages don’t adequately address the needs of working parents, especially in the COVID era. One resource that is proving beneficial for thousands of working parents is coaching. Professional coaching provides scalable, personalized, and ongoing support to help employees meet the challenges they face at work. The mindsets and behaviors employees learn through coaching can help them better balance personal and professional responsibilities, manage stress and anxiety, and build stronger relationships both in and out of the workplace.
Working parents bring unique value and skills to their roles. Giving them the support they need to balance their responsibilities and better care for their families is an investment that everyone gets a return on.
Sr. Insights Manager