Whether your weekdays consist of remote learning tech support, schoolwork patrol, or keeping your toddler occupied for more than 10 minutes, the work-from-home-with-your-kids situation is… not good.
Pinch-hitting as a day care worker and teacher while trying to do your actual job is leading to parental burnout worldwide, with consequences that range from depressing to downright frightening.
And while there’s no perfect solution to the situation (short of there not being a pandemic anymore), a little more leeway from your employer would be a really good first step.
The thought of asking your boss for flexible hours (or straight up fewer hours altogether) can feel pretty daunting, especially at a time when many of us feel lucky to even have a job to begin with.
But — understatement of the century, here — getting some semblance of work-pandemic life balance is crucial for improving parents’ mental health. And that can actually translate to big benefits for your employer.
“Stress and burnout have a huge impact on our work,” explains Laura Hamill, PhD, organizational psychologist and chief science officer at the employee experience platform Limeade. In other words, the less crazed you feel, the more likely you’ll be able to actually get good work done.
And for many of us, a little flexibility could spell the difference between staying at a job and giving up altogether.
“Ultimately working parents deciding they can’t work within the rigid format of their employer will create a knowledge drain. People will opt to leave,” says Colleen Curtis, chief community officer at The Mom Project.
In a perfect world your boss might sit you down and say: Hey, I know this whole pandemic parenting thing is insanely hard. What can I do to help?
But if that hasn’t happened yet (heh), it’s time to start the conversation yourself. Here’s how to do it — and up the odds of walking away with what you want.
“Flexible schedule” has a nice ring to it, but it’s way too vague. Before going to your manager, “Understand yourself and what you want. Don’t make them ask or fill in the blanks,” says Jolene Cramer, senior director of integrated marketing at Limeade.
Cramer sought out a more flexible schedule shortly after coming back from maternity leave with her twin daughters (now 5), when she realized commuting 45 minutes or more each way, 5 days a week, left her struggling. “I specifically asked, can I work Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday? You’ll have me from sun up to sun down on those days,” she says.
The specifics of pandemic work flexibility are obviously different (right now you might wish that you had 45 minutes to yourself in the car every morning). But you still need to nail those specifics down.
Maybe that means no meetings before 9 a.m. so you can take time to have breakfast as a family and help everyone get settled.
Or you take an extended break in the afternoon to recap the day’s Zoom lessons and assignments with your kid and make up the time at night.
Or maybe you take a whole day off midweek where you can just play with your kids or help with schoolwork.
No one likes to feel blindsided. So when you email your boss about setting up a meeting, tell them what you want to talk about so they can start warming up to the idea.
Hamill suggests framing your meeting request as something like, “I want to talk about a different way of working with some flexibility in my schedule. Can we go over my thoughts and my proposal?”
You should be open about the fact that you’re having difficulty with your current setup. But don’t turn it into a thing where you’re trying to convince your boss that you deserve X, Y, and Z because things are so crappy (even though, let’s face it, you do deserve it).
“Because this is emotional, a lot of people focus too much on why they need the flexibility, and the manager isn’t speaking your language,” Curtis says.
It’s fine to give your boss an outline of how a typical day at your house goes, so they can get a sense of what’s stealing your time and focus (“I can set Maddie up for 20-minute stretches of independent play,” or “Anderson is in kindergarten and needs help logging into his virtual classroom every morning.”).
But keep the focus mostly on how the unpredictability affects your ability to be productive with your job, not on how the insanity makes you want to hide in a closet and scream into a pillow.
“It’s about aligning for best outcomes,” says Curtis. “Explain how having the flexibility you’re asking for will make you more productive, so it will be better for the business.”
If you can put in half of your hours before your kids get up or after bedtime, for instance, you’ll be able to focus more because you won’t be interrupted.
Get the sense that your boss will be iffy about your request? Frame it as a pilot program.
“Suggest doing it for 3 months and then taking time to reassess,” Cramer says. “And decide with your manager about how you’ll measure whether things are working. Is there a specific output or deliverable that I’m responsible for that we can look at? That’s important, so it’s not just, how are we feeling about this?”
Similarly, you can frame your ask as something you need to get through the current situation, not necessarily forever. Maybe the flexible arrangement stands, say, until your employer decides to bring everyone back to the office or until your child’s school reopens full time. “That feels like a reasonable thing for an employer to do,” Hamill says.
If your boss can’t say yes to everything in your proposal, see what kinds of alternatives they can offer. “There may be little things your organization can do to give working parents more flexibility,” Cramer says.
If you have to be online during a certain window every day, can you make yourself unavailable at another point? Can there be a policy that meetings don’t start before a certain time each day?
And if there’s just no room for flexibility in your current position, is there another position within your same company that could give you the breathing room you need?
Easier said than done, yes. Being told no, straight up, sucks — not just because getting work done will continue to be a major struggle, but because it makes you feel like you aren’t being valued.
But there are still things you can take away from the experience. First? That your employer may not align with your values as a parent. And even if now isn’t a great time to quit and look for another job, “That’s a data point you can use for the future,” Cramer says.
Just as important? It might sound hokey, but try to see this as a teachable moment for your child.
“When our kids see us getting frustrated or complaining about work, they’re building a model in their head of what work is,” says Hamill. “There’s an opportunity here, even if the situation is hard, to talk about challenges and the importance of being resilient.”
By asking for what we need, we have the opportunity to model for our kids the kind of relationship we hope they have with their jobs, one day. And even more importantly, it’s a statement to our kids, our employers, and ourselves that we believe our work is valuable, and we are worth the accommodation.
Marygrace Taylor is a health and wellness writer who has written for Parade, Glamour, and Men’s Health. She also co-authored the award-winning book “Allergy-Friendly Food for Families.“