Back in November 2019 I attended the Women in Tech Regatta and was inspired by several of the talks I attended. One of them was around “Integrating career and parenthood” and as I was sitting there, I felt that it touched upon some of the tensions we face in the workplace when battling with our mental health regardless of whether we are parents or not.
This got me thinking of the work-life balance again, and how we can create work environments that are favourable to managing the different roles we have in life.
Parenting and mental health?
So what does parenting have to do with mental health, and what was I doing attending a panel regarding parenthood? Considering I made a video championing working mums I was curious to hear what the panel had to say on the subject. To this day it remains a challenge that prevents women from progressing in their career, and it’s still unusual for dads to take parental leave so I wanted to hear what others think we can do to start changing things.
Parenthood comes with its own set of challenges when it comes to mental health. The first thing that comes to mind is exhaustion: everyone knows that sleep deprivation really messes with your emotional well-being and resilience. Not to mention the potential self-doubt as you learn how to parent, and the tension in your relationship as you navigate this new role. Mothers may also suffer from post-partum depression, while dads have their own struggles.
On top of that, comes the pressure of managing your job, your kid and your relationship once you go back to work.
This is where the panel discussion became more interesting. Each parent started to share their experiences of juggling parenthood and career, and this is what I noticed.
- All of these people were high performers in high profile jobs at big companies (Uber, Deloitte) before they had kids
- All of them had been hard working before they became parents (read: long hours)
- It sounded as if some of them had already been struggling to cope with the intense jobs, long working hours and responsibilities they had, while maintaining their social lives
- One of them had even experienced a burnout before making a 180 and dedicating her career to improving workplace wellbeing
What struck me was that in some of these cases, becoming a parent seemed to be the ultimate wake-up call for people who were living jam-packed lives. The arrival of a new human being sparked the ultimate question: “Shit, how am I going to manage all of this”?
When caring for your child you want to make time, be there for them, and see them grow up, which is why you start asking yourself how to manage your polarized work-life balance. This lead me to the idea of integrating the different parts of our lives.
Living a balanced life, overall
The conversation first made me realize the importance of taking care of your mental health before becoming a parent.
When it comes to parenthood, it’s clear there are many challenges involved. Many people think of planning for parenthood financially, as well as for childcare and housing. But how often do you think of preparing for the impact it will have on your mental health?
There’s no doubt it’s good to have a routine that is beneficial for your mental health and ensures you have a healthy balance between work, play, sports and whatever else you want to do before becoming a parent. Learning to juggle those difference aspects of, and priorities in your life will mean you have a “head start” of sorts when the time comes.
In addition, taking care of your mental health in life and at work takes a fair amount of understanding yourself, your triggers, boundaries and coping mechanisms. Trying to figure those out whilst you have a small screaming baby is going to be challenging at best. This is not to imply that you suddenly have to rush to see a coach/psychologist etc. but rather, consider how knowing this will help you feel a bit more grounded once your baby arrives.
Integrating the different parts of our lives
Back to life more generally speaking, one of the panellists made an interesting comment around how employers should support people and their different lifestyles. When it comes to promoting good mental health, it shouldn’t only be on an employer’s radar to help people balance their lives once they become parents. This should be a process supported throughout people’s careers. We can thank millennials for being the generation that has become more demanding of their employers for recent changes we have seen in this direction.
But the fact that it’s taken so long to happen (and no one has nailed it yet) hints to how we have long imagined private and professional life as separate. Nowadays it is clearer than ever that we are individuals who bring their whole selves to work, including our lives as mums/dads/spouses/children etc. Most of the parents on the panel mentioned “checking their problems or their parent selves at the door”, but that strikes me as so difficult to do. How can you leave a part of yourself on the doorstep for eight hours a day?
So what if it wasn’t as black and white as parent vs. non-parent or work-life balance? What if it was about integrating all aspects of our lives and employers helping us do that? It seems to me that would create a more inclusive workplace, that also works towards better mental health.
For example if I am a dancer, why should my employer not support me by giving me time off to get to rehearsals and occasionally travel to perform? Isn’t that the same as taking time off as a parent, if your child is sick one day?
How employers can support mental health
Many employers struggle to know how to support or promote better mental health in the workplace, but perhaps the answer starts here. Start by encouraging your employees to have a life outside of work. Help them to find the right balance between their personal and professional lives so that they can give their all at work and go home with energy to give to their next activity. Allow them to take time off for their races/competitions/performances etc. so that by the time they’re taking a day off for their children no one is giving them a funny look or telling them “oh you’re not in the office again?!”.
Here are some ideas:
- Encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. Don’t just ask them about their hobbies in an interview and then forget about what sparks joy for them.
- Have a flexible work policy that supports extra-curricular activities. I don’t just mean allowing people to work from home (which is great), but supporting them as they’re training for an event or volunteering at their community centre. Of course your policy should be within reason, I’m not suggesting you suddenly allow unlimited days off.
- Support personal development through training. Often training and L&D is limited to the realm of a person’s job description or role in the company. But if an employee has a passion outside of work why not support it too? Who knows how this might come back into the workplace, much like one of the panellists who turned her passion about workplace wellbeing into her full time job, to the benefit of her company.
- Help align career paths with people’s passions outside of work. You might be rolling your eyes at this but studies have shown that if people are able to find purpose in their job, they will be more engaged and stay longer. While I’m not suggesting everyone suddenly only works on what they’re interested in, you might be surprised by the results of allowing people to put their passion to good use at work.
- Get to know your employees and foster good relationships. Encourage line managers to get to know their team members more personally so they know what makes them tick. This can also help when the time comes to have more difficult talks about struggling with workload or mental health.
Promoting good mental health at work doesn’t mean you suddenly have to have a mental health policy and train all your employees, though of course it helps. It starts by seeing people for who they are and understanding that while you may have a company to run and a large one at that, we’re all just human beings trying to make our way through life.
Start by fostering and environment in which people can be themselves and learn to integrate the different parts of their lives early on in their career. That way, as they progress through their careers and gain more responsibility, they will already know how to juggle more than one ball.