Solving The Parent Trap: How Policies, Empathy and No Bias At Work Help Moms

Moms in the workplace need support and empathy.

Moms in the workplace need support and empathy.

Give the moms a break.

In the U.S., nearly 25 million moms are in the workforce, and  most, or  70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are working. Nearly 75 percent of these mothers are employed full-time. Nearly half, or 40 percent, of those working mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their family.

That’s a lot of juggling home and family responsibilities. You don’t have to tell any mother—or father—that children require a lot, from birth to adulthood. And a career requires a lot of time and nurturing as well. It’s all physical, emotional and intellectual energy coming from the same well.

Because May is both Mental Health Awareness Month and the month we celebrate Mother’s Day, it is a good time to take a look at the toll parenting takes on mothers in the workplace, and also how mothers can best be supported at work—in an empathic environment.

Because May is both #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and the month we celebrate #MothersDay, it is a good time to take a look at how mothers can best be supported at work—in an empathic environment.

According the the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of mothers surveyed said it is “somewhat/very difficult” to balance both work and life responsibilities, according to Yahoo Finance.

Mothers do more of the intellectual, mental and emotional work at home, so maintaining a healthy balance of professional and personal responsibilities might be one of the biggest mental health challenges these moms face, according to Rae Shanahan, chief strategy  officer of Businessolver.  

Read more in Take The Lead on Rae Shanahan at Businessolver.

Businessolver’s latest 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study has insights about the kinds of initiatives that employees look for from their employers. According to the study, more than 90 percent of employees found family related benefits such as after-school programs, day care, paid parental leave and extended mental health benefits were the most empathetic benefits an organization can offer.

“One of the most important things an employer can do for working parents is to show empathy. Empathy can be expressed in many ways and especially in benefits offerings. Flexibility and understanding are key. Employers need to think about how they can support working mothers in very practical ways such as: flexible schedules so moms can get their kids to the bus stop before work; flexible work locations so if a child is sick, a mother can work from home; and even flexible PTO policies that allow working moms to take time for school events, such as field trips,” Shanahan says.

According to the report, “When asked what workplace impacts mental health issues can have, 60 percent of employees said it negatively affects attendance at work. And absenteeism is indeed linked to stress, burnout, and the need to take time off to care for family members.”

The report states, “An estimated 40 million Americans are coping with some form of anxiety, and this has a startling impact on our working lives, including absenteeism and lack of engagement. Untreated depression symptoms cost employers an estimated $44 billion a year in lost productivity.”

Shanahan adds, “Employers must also look at other less traditional avenues like helping them accomplish their savings goals, such as putting money away for college. This can address mothers’ (and families’) financial well-being, which is important for reducing stress and improving productivity when moms are at work. Understanding your own employees is key to offering the right benefits, in the right place and at the right time in their lives. That’s real support and helps create a truly empathetic culture.”

Katherine Goldstein, host of the new podcast, “The Double Shift” tells NPR, “A lot of mothers feel like failures, but really, it’s America that’s failing us. And there’s huge systemic problems with how little mothers are supported. And I think telling people to get up earlier or just try harder isn’t the solution. We need much, much bigger thinking.”

While stress is individualized, perhaps the solutions do need to be bigger and be offered in the workplace and the larger community.

Read more in Take The Lead on solving breastfeeding issues at work

According to New America’s Better Life Lab’s Better Life Toolkit, “The stress of long work hours, chaotic schedules, and the inability to control or predict workflow is associated with an estimated 120,000 excess deaths a year, 5 to 8 percent of health care costs and a 35 percent greater chance of having a physician-diagnosed illness. Long work hours alone are associated with a 20 percent higher mortality rate.”

Brigid Schulte, director of Better Life Lab at New America, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has The Time, and co-author of the Better Life Toolkit, writes, “With the majority of children being raised in homes where all parents work, a growing elderly population requiring care (more than one in five U.S. residents will be 65 or older by the year 2030), and the rise of contingent work in the gig economy, flexible work will be critical for managing the changing nature of work and the competing demands of work and home.”

Schulte, host of “Better Life Podcast” available on itunesStitcherSpotify and more, is a guest May 8 on Take The Lead’s May Virtual Happy Hour, “Shift Storm: How Moms Can Succeed At Work And Beyond.”

This stress is real for mothers at work. Some say is a result of workplace cultures that practice a unique form of bias.

This stress is real for #mothersatwork. Some say is a result of workplace cultures that practice a unique form of bias.

Aside from the stress of solving career and parenting challenges simultaneously, there is “maternal wall bias, a form of discrimination that many working mothers encounter, explains Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who studies workplace discrimination,” writes Lesley Evans Ogden in Science.

“Maternal wall bias occurs when colleagues view mothers—or pregnant women—as less competent and less committed to their jobs, she says, and it’s a major problem for women’s career advancement. Maternal wall bias can manifest in different ways, coming from hiring committees, colleagues, and individuals conducting performance evaluations. For example, when mothers are working away from the office, it’s often assumed they’re home with their kids,” Ogden writes.

Read more in Take The Lead on mom role models

“They get penalized because of [those] assumptions,” Sophia Huyer, executive director of the nonprofit organization Women in Global Science and Technology in Ontario, Canada, who studies gender equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, tells Science.

Read more in Take The Lead on Shadiah Sigala, guest on the May VHH, “Shift Storm: How Moms Can Succeed at Work and Beyond”

Huffington Post reports, “A new report by the Royal Bank of Canada confirms what many mothers have known for a long time: women face numerous setbacks at work when they decide to have children.”

While the Canadian “Government maternity leave covers up to 55 per cent of a woman’s annual salary, the wage drop doesn’t stop after that first year. Women continue to experience a significant earnings penalty for five years after the birth of a child. It’s particularly pronounced in younger women: 25- to 29-year-olds see an additional 14 per cent of earnings losses over this period,” Huffington Post reports.

Starting with paid parental leave, mothers in the workplace need to handle concerns of pumping breast milk at work, flex time, the ability to work virtually when necessary and time off to handle family emergencies. And they need to feel they can be honest about what they need with employers and managers without suffering consequences that can harm career growth.

Starting with #paidparentalleave, mothers in the workplace need to handle concerns of pumping breast milk at work, flex time, the ability to work virtually when necessary and time off to handle family emergencies. #MothersDay

“There is no one program, no one benefit, and no one action that will create workplace empathy,” according to Shanahan. “It has to be a continual effort that draws together different levels within an organization, and that is valued by leadership as a signal to the rest of the organization that empathy matters.”

She adds, “It must be cultivated over time through behaviors, such as emphasizing face-to-face communication and recognizing what different audiences need to do to show empathy to their colleagues. Encouraging total well-being is vital for organizations to not only attract but also to retain an engaged workforce. The ability to empathize with different generational life stages — through benefits, flexibility, and support for mental health — will make organizations stand out from the crowd and achieve their business goals by taking better care of their employees.”

Shanahan adds, “Mothers should feel empowered to ask for help at work, yet too often we’re expected to ‘do it all.’ An open communication policy and improving empathy in the workplace can really help improve workplace communication. Additionally, it should be noted that one of the key ways employers can improve communication and empathy is to focus on diversity in hiring practices. When there are women in leadership roles, data shows that empathy in the workplace improves.”

That may be the break– and support–mothers need.

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About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon