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Suffering in silence: Why working parents hide child care woes from their employers

March 10, 2022 - 9 min read

Working Parents Feel Compelled to Hide Childcare Needs

 

For over two years now, working parents have been wrestling with skyrocketing childcare costs and the logistical nightmare caused by on-and-off again school closures and hybrid work arrangements. Parents have experienced some relief with schools everywhere open again. The pressure is still high, though, as understaffed daycare centers and after-school programs have been forced to cut hours and raise fees

As a result, parents are taking on more childcare responsibilities. This juggling act has negatively impacted their work performance, derailed their careers, and fueled feelings of guilt and shame. But there has been a silver lining. 

Organizations across industries have stepped up to offer more resources to support their employees — offering everything from flexible work arrangements to expanded benefits. Why, then, are so many working parents afraid to take advantage of these resources?

To answer that question and others, BetterUp’s Khoa Le Nguyen, an applied behavioral scientist, collected data from 584 full-time working parents in the US who had at least one child under the age of 10. What he found was that working parents are hiding their needs, fears, and problems from the people who are often in the best position to help.

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What the data say:

Our survey revealed that nearly a third of working parents don’t feel comfortable talking to their boss about their childcare needs.

 

According to research from Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes inclusivity in the workplace, a major factor could be the perception that expressing these needs could jeopardize their employment. 39% say they worry they could be let go from their jobs if they did. 

For many, the memory of a far less flexible or child-tolerant workplace is still fresh. While our social media feeds may be filled with adorable viral images of little ones dropping in on big meetings, slightly older moms remember when a sickness or school closure meant taking con-calls from a coat closet or bathroom to hide-out from a needy toddler. Bringing attention to the existence of children, much less that you sometimes need to care for them, could be career limiting at best, risking labels like “uncommitted,” “undependable,” “flakey,” or “scattered” — especially for women. 

Women and men alike may not even feel they have an opening to have any type of conversation about childcare with their manager.  

It’s not surprising that so many parents are concerned, given the shaky economy and rising inflation. While the labor market overall appears strong, many industries have experienced devastating layoffs and furloughs as pandemic uncertainty persists. But in an era where the labor crunch has employers doing everything they can to retain employees, working parents have more leverage than they may think and could be leaving necessary relief on the table. 

When it comes to disruptions and challenges parents face — and they have been frequent in pandemic times — it’s even more common for parents to feel uneasy seeking support from their supervisor or authentically sharing their challenges. 2 in 5 working parents don’t feel comfortable sharing their childcare struggles with their boss. This lack of comfort is shared equally between mothers and fathers. 

 

While job insecurity could again be a factor for these feelings, we believe that a lack of belonging — and the trust it engenders — could also be to blame. 

Feelings of belonging dropped to their lowest levels during the pandemic and continue to remain low. 46% of employees feel less connected to their company now than before the pandemic. And it’s even worse for individual contributors than it is for those in management positions. If employees don’t feel connected, don’t feel seen, valued, and appreciated, it’s difficult for employees to trust their managers and their teammates. This leads to feelings of fear, insecurity, and unhealthy competition. 

Depending on the employee population, they may also feel in the minority and not want to draw attention to their age or family status. If a manager gives their work to someone else, they become even less-valued and possibly resented by the team members without children. Given that, it’s even less likely that they will reach out when they are stressed, struggling, and not at their best.

What organizations can do:

Expanding benefits and offering specific resources to lighten the load for working parents is a great first step. But if working parents don’t take advantage of those resources, it’s all for naught. Clearly, what organizations need to do is build a culture of trust, belonging, and inclusivity. 

Over the past several years, data from over one million BetterUp coaching sessions show that inclusive leadership plays a vital role in promoting belonging, boosting retention, and growing trust. And it all starts with frontline managers.

Inclusive managers set the tone and model the behaviors for their team to create an environment where each person feels seen, valued, respected, and trusted. These leaders see, value, and embrace employees as whole people. They respect their employees’ identities and show empathy for their family responsibilities. This leads to high levels of trust and psychological safety

When employees feel they can bring their whole, authentic selves to work without fear of reprisal, managers can get a better sense of their needs and offer much needed support. When working parents feel supported, they see a 28% boost in wellbeing. And parents aren’t the only ones that benefit from compassionate managers — organizations benefit as well. When managers practice empathy and support their employees, intent to stay scores among working parents increase by 13%. 

Managers and organizations can be more inclusive of parents in tangible day-to-day ways. For example, discouraging meetings that fall into the early morning hours, across time zones, means parents don’t have to constantly decide whether to spend a meaningful before-school hour with their kids or skip a career-enhancing meeting. It’s important to proactively set these norms so that parents don’t feel like they are calling attention to themselves (and their needs) every time they ask for a different meeting time. It’s hard to do in global companies but worth making an effort. Leaders and managers can also share their own childcare struggles. They can  invite their own direct reports to bring kids into the room at any time. 

It may be less obvious, but managers can also be more supportive and inclusive of parents by still holding them accountable for their work, while offering flexibility of hours. This helps avoid the toxic and career-limiting perception that parents with childcare needs aren’t pulling their weight on the team.  

The stresses that parents are currently experiencing are unlikely to go away any time soon However, many organizations are eager to help and have more resources than ever before to support their working parents. By training managers in inclusive leadership skills, organizations can ensure that those resources are put to good use.

 

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Published March 10, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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