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Two-thirds of working parents feel burnt out, which can directly affect the quality of their work, productivity, retention, and relationships. Fortunately, there are compassionate and pragmatic strategies that can help address this issue and support parents effectively.
Parental burnout—an overwhelming state of exhaustion, emotional depletion, and reduced effectiveness—is a pressing issue for many working parents today. And it not only affects them but has a profound impact on their children and family dynamics.
After studying 900 parents, Isabelle Roskam, Ph.D., and Moïra Mikolajczak, Ph.D. developed the Parental Burnout Assessment, which outlines three stages:
- Overwhelming exhaustion
- Distancing yourself from your children to conserve energy
- Loss of fulfillment in parenting
As a stepparent to two teen girls, I’ve experienced the challenges of parental burnout myself —especially during the height of COVID-19 when I was working from home in a full house. I’ve witnessed my husband juggle his responsibilities as an engaged leader and a highly involved dad while observing the girls’ mom navigate similar challenges. Additionally, I have many friends who are working parents with babies and toddlers, facing even more demanding and nuanced needs.
Keep reading for strategies and practical tips to prevent—or at least alleviate—parental burnout, and empower parents to find joy in parenthood while balancing their careers. We’re also providing valuable insights and strategies for HR leaders to create a work culture that embraces family well-being.
Understanding the causes of parental burnout
While the factors that contribute to parental burnout can vary from person to person, there are several common contributors:
- Juggling responsibilities: Balancing work, childcare, household tasks, and personal obligations—like appointments and finances—can leave little time for self care.
- Poor work-life balance: When work demands invade personal and family time—or vice versa—maintaining a health balance becomes challenging.
- Lack of flexibility: Limited workplace flexibility can make parents feel torn between their family life and work duties, leaving little time for self care.
- Lack of support: Feelings of isolation and overwhelm can occur when working parents’ bosses or colleagues fail to recognize their personal priorities (think “urgent” 10 p.m. Slack messages).
- Job insecurity: Uncertainty about job stability or economic conditions can make it harder for parents to establish healthy boundaries. This also adds to their stress.
- Mental health needs: Parental burnout can be exacerbated by a parent’s own mental health challenges, or those of their children or other family members.
- Social comparison: Constant exposure to idealized portrayals of people’s lives can amplify feelings of inadequacy and pressure to meet unrealistic standards.
Recognizing the warning signs of parental burnout
Identifying the symptoms of parental burnout is crucial for working parents and their managers to address issues before they escalate.
Physical symptoms may include:
- Persistent low energy
- Physical tension
- Changes in appetite
- Frequent illnesses or weakened immune system
Emotional signs may involve:
- Feelings of irritability
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Withdrawal from social interactions
- Decreased motivation
- Increased cynicism
- Unintentional changes in parenting style
Cognitive indicators may consist of:
- Persistent negative self-talk
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Impaired memory
- Reduced creativity
- Feeling overwhelmed even with simple tasks
Coping strategies for stressed-out parents
To support the demands pulling working parents in different directions, it's important to develop healthy strategies that promote overall well-being. If you find yourself on the verge of burnout, consider implementing the following tips:
- Prioritize: Arrange tasks based on their importance and urgency, setting realistic goals to manage your workload and minimize stress.
- Delegate: Identify family tasks that can be shared or delegated to your partner, family members, or trusted caregivers to lighten your responsibilities.
- Empower: As your children grow older, encourage their independence by assigning age-appropriate chores and responsibilities (for example, washing dishes after dinner).
- Set boundaries: If you work from home and have older children, communicate clearly when you need uninterrupted time to focus on work. During the pandemic, my husband would tell the girls I was a “hologram” during working hours—while they could see me, they couldn’t interact with me.
- Recharge: Dedicate regular time in your schedule for activities that bring you joy, relaxation, and rejuvenation—whether yoga classes or walks with friends.
- Take micro-breaks: Even five-minute breaks can be beneficial. Use this time to close your eyes, take deep breaths, enjoy the sun’s warmth, or listen to a short guided mindfulness exercise.
- Practice self-compassion: Acknowledge the pressures you face, recognize that this is a challenging situation, and remind yourself that you are doing your best with the resources available. Be kind to yourself.
- Get perspective: Carve out leisurely family time for play, laughter, and bonding. Being present during these moments of quality time can help replenish your energy and restore a sense of purpose.
How leaders can support burnt-out parents
By fostering a supportive work environment, offering more flexibility, and leading by example, leaders can help prevent and alleviate burnout among their team members. Creating an inclusive and supportive atmosphere can also increase engagement, performance, and retention. Here are a few techniques you can try.
Cultivate a supportive environment
Encouraging empathy, understanding, and respect for work-life balance can make team members feel valued and seen as whole people. Giving employees the time to check in with each other—and for their leaders to do the same—can help parents feel cared for as individuals and not just contributors to the bottom line.
Show support and recognition
It’s often said that parenting is a “thankless job,” so offering positive reinforcement and celebration at work could offer someone a much-needed lift. Moreover, recognizing their personal lives—like asking how their son’s birthday party was—shows you care about them as a human.
Make time for check-ins
Schedule regular one-on-ones with working parents to ask about their well-being, discuss challenges, and offer support and guidance. Many parents may hesitate to bring up personal difficulties for fear of looking unprofessional or unmotivated, so it may take some time and rapport-building before they feel safe to open up.
Offer more flexibility
While not every workplace or job is suited to remote work, finding even small ways to increase flexibility can make a difference. Consider what might be possible in your workplace, or experiment with a trial period with additional flexibility and see how it goes.
Lead by example
As a leader, you’re in position to help working parents reduce burnout. Start by taking these four steps:
- Set the tone: Prioritize your work-life balance and model healthy boundaries, from taking vacations to avoiding sending emails during off hours.
- Normalize talking about family: If you have kids or a partner, share personal stories or put up photos of your family to create a sense of camaraderie.
- Encourage setting boundaries: Empower employees to limit work outside working hours, use their vacation time, and stay home when sick.
- Celebrate well-being: I work with a client who regularly talks to her team about the importance of sleep and how it’s a top priority for her. More than a personal share, it invites others to do the same.
Provide more HR resources and support
While it’s not always possible to influence change at these levels, the following initiatives can be incredibly supportive:
- Offer generous leave: Implement inclusive parental leave policies that provide enough time for bonding and adjusting to new family dynamics.
- Support the transition: Offer resources to ease the transition back to work. Consider offering support for postpartum mental health, phased returns, flexible schedules, or access to childcare.
- Recognize when professional help is needed: Train managers to recognize signs of burnout and encourage access to professional support, from clinical care to coaching benefits.
Creating a culture of care for working parents
In the ever-complex work landscape, supporting and addressing parental burnout has become essential for organizations that want to create thriving and inclusive cultures. HR leaders and people managers can champion the well-being of working parents and foster a more supportive environment where they can flourish.
By understanding the distinct challenges of parenting, you can help cultivate a workforce that genuinely supports moms, dads, stepparents, and caregivers who also want to thrive in their jobs.
Watch our latest webinar on demand to learn more about addressing parental burnout, and why leading organizations are moving toward a family-first approach.