Working parents have a lot to juggle, and this can create stress. But what we often overlook is that stress has real health consequences.
Several weeks ago, I put together a survey* asking working parents about stress and its effects on their health. More than 600 people responded. I filtered out respondents who lived in a household with at least one stay-at-home adult, which left 560 respondents in households where all adults work. Their answers were alarming:
- 80% catch up on work nights and weekends
- 81% worry they will burn out
- 88% said they suffer from at least one stress-related health problem since becoming a working parent
- 59% have problems with anxiety
- 43% struggle with depression
Can you say “public health crisis”?
Moreover, what these numbers don’t show, but what any stressed out parent will tell you, is that once the health effects of stress are felt, everything gets that much harder to manage. That’s when some of us start circling the drain.
Interestingly, most parents (82%) said their employers offered at least one family-friendly perk, such as flexible scheduling. But it seems clear that this is not enough to keep stress at bay for most.
When asked to choose one thing that would make their lives easier as a working parent, there was no one-size-fits-all answer. About a quarter selected “More help with chores/kids” and another quarter answered “Good part time option.” Detailed responses are below.
But before you dive into the details, here’s what I think we all need to understand. Most jobs are made for people who have no caregiving responsibilities. That means that most parents (or people caring for elderly or sick loved ones) do most of the accommodating. The results of this survey imply that for many of us, the price we pay is our health.
Hundreds of parents left comments at the end of the survey. One summarized the problem this way:
“Unfortunately, we’re living in a “half-changed world” – women have many more professional opportunities than did the last generation, but our importance as mothers and wives and to ourselves has not been taken into account, and there are increasing demands from our jobs…We all need to redefine work/success/”doing it all” so that our daughters will not face these same dilemmas.”
Who took the survey
- Most people who took the survey are moms. (96%)
- Most live in the U.S., although a handful of responses came from other countries. (Big wave to our friends in Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, India, and Guatemala!)
- Most have 1-2 children, and roughly half have at least one child under the age of three. (Standing ovation for the six respondents who have 4 or more children and somehow manage to work outside the home.)
- 75% work full time.**
- 8% are single parents.
- Of those who have a live-in partner, 81% of their partners work full time.
- Almost everyone works because they need the income (91%) but that’s not the only reason they work. More than half said that, despite the juggling act, they enjoy working.
How bad is it?
To be clear, not everyone is profoundly stressed. About 20% of people said they do not worry about burning out. Also, about 20% work less than 32 hours per week. Is this the same 20%? I don’t know—the survey tool I’m using won’t tell us. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a correlation. This is what one parent said about her schedule:
“I feel SO incredibly lucky to be able to go part time (4 days/week 32 hours)–just that one day helps so much, and part time work in my field is rare.”
When I asked people to rate their overall level of stress on a scale of 1-5 (1 being “very little,” 5 being “extreme”), the average answer was 3.4. Detailed responses below. (Click image to enlarge.)
While some people seem to be balancing things pretty well, the overwhelming feedback was that most people simply have too much to do, and this creates all sorts of problems, including health problems. A whopping 491 people out of 560 (88%) reported at least one health problem they’ve experienced since becoming a working parent. You could argue that these are not all a direct result of working parent stress. However, it’s hard to say that stress and lack of time to take care of ourselves isn’t a factor.
Here’s the detailed breakdown of health problems working parents reported. (Click image to enlarge.)
Note: Parents were allowed to select more than one response. The number 491 refers to the total number of people who checked at least one of the above options, if not more than one.
“Other” responses included these:
- bronchitis, asthma
- Mood Swings
- If I think about it I feel trapped, so I don’t think about it…
- hip issues from long commute
- husband developed a chronic illness/ We both feel much older.
- I have no time to exercise
- heart arrythmia
- lack of sleep
- Anger, but I’m not sure who I’m angry with
- back problems (probably from lifting the “little” ones)
- Not sure if it would classify as a health problem, but I definitely have anxiety. And I’m tired. Real tired.
- Ok, that was just scary to see – every option checked…
- I tend to get sick and snippy around deadline time.
- always tired
- Asthma, joint problems, etc.
- Two operations and general aches and pains, partly from stress, not eating well, and not exercising enough
- I wake up coughing, and end up throwing up or dry heaving
- Haven’t gained, but can’t lose weight b/c I have no time to work out. Also, back issues.
- I do not sleep enough – maybe only 5-6 hours a night.
- Stress manifesting in my body, seeing a chiro
- neck and back pain
- regular headaches
- occasional fatigue due to insomnia
- Back pain
- Guilt, Frustration, sadness, but not to the point of depression
- thyroid, high cholesterol, low energy level, low vitamin D
- high blood pressure
- I am sick every 4-5 weeks. Recently, when I am sick it takes a month to get better. I’m not kidding.
What are employers doing to help?
When I asked people if they had any “family-friendly” perks, a whopping 82% said they had at least one. That surprised me, to be honest. If so many employers offer these perks for balancing work and family, why is stress so out of control?
“I’m extremely lucky that my husband is hands-on and does his part, and that my employer gives me a lot of leeway, but I still can’t do it all.”
Here is a breakdown of responses to this question: (Click image to enlarge)
Note: The number 464 refers to the total number of people who checked at least one of the above options, if not more than one.
Of those who answered “Other,” perks included things like this being able to “work from home on occasion,” “summers off,” or being able to bring infants to work for the first six months.
The most common perk was “flexible hours.” Having a flexible schedule is critical for many parents, who need to be able to pick up their kids at a certain time. But it often means catching up on work nights and/or weekends (80% said they do this occasionally or often). So for many, “flexible hours” isn’t enough. They need to work fewer hours.
“I always feel like I’m about to collapse. Since I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted – the kids are just irritants, and so is the job. Every day is a giant struggle, and all I can see, for years and years ahead, is more of the same…[It] would make a HUGE difference…if we could just work fewer hours, or commute less…”
“I would LOVE LOVE LOVE a part time option, but it is not realistic or offered in the work that I do (film editor)…”
Several people said the recession was a big part of their stress:
“The nail in the coffin for parents these days is the added whammy of the recession and the cutbacks in staff in so many workplaces…Even if one can leave at a normal hour, the intensity of the day and the pressure of conflicting priorities leave me in a constant state of fight-or-flight…”
“My job, (probably like a lot of people’s) has gotten much more demanding in the past 5 years, which makes working more stressful, and our anxiety about money makes changing jobs more difficult.”
Some people said their workplace perks were more talk than reality:
“My employer does offer flexible hours and working from home but the demands of the job mean I still work long hours with frequent travel.”
“While my company “officially” offers job shares and part-time schedules, getting my manager/department heads to agree to it is impossible, and I don’t know anyone who is able to use the option in our department. If I could working 20-25 hours/week, most of my problems would be solved – really. It just isn’t an option for me and most other professionals. Even if it were, I would be thrown further on to the “mommy track”. I work from home full time, so am already seen as an outsider at my company, although I have been with the company longer than almost anyone in my dept. Working part time would likely be career suicide at this company.”
In some cases, parents seemed to be asking for a culture shift more than anything else.
“I have in all respects the perfect set up – flexible schedule, working part-time (for my career), can work from home 2 days a week, professional career, good income – but I work in a service industry and I have to be available at the request of the client. I can actually handle the clients most of the time – it’s my boss/coworkers that cause the stress. I know I have a good situation and I know that they don’t like it, so I feel like if I don’t prove myself 200%, they can take it away from me.”
“I’m shocked at the…disapproval I get from people for being a full time working mother.”
“My husband and I have the same job (both university professors) and try to do the same amount at home. He often gets called a “Great Dad” and I regularly get told how lucky I am (if he shows up to anything at the kids’ school, for instance) and I often feel like I am being judged (if I don’t show up to something at school, for instance) and rarely get called Great Mom (except by my kids–which is lovely). I think my husband and I have it worked out pretty well, but society sometimes sucks with its expectations.”
Several people mentioned they were self-employed, which meant trading one kind of stress for another:
“Being self-employed is great as I have lots of free time. Time to worry about when the check is going to come…”
What’s the hardest part?
I asked people what was the hardest part about being a working parent. Not surprisingly, “Guilt that I can’t do everything well” was the top answer (41% choose this one). “Lack of time with kids” got 24% of the responses, followed by “Lack of time to myself” (16%). The marriage seems last on everyone’s list. Only 5% selected “Lack of time with partner.”
In one parent’s words:
“How about no sex since child #2 was conceived (3+ years)?! We’re both too tired all the time, and have no time to really reconnect. What little downtime we have we want/need to have to ourselves, or to do something that takes no energy (like tv or movie).”
For some, the pressure came not so much from the workplace, but from other parents:
“not sure how to put this – but in the circles that I run – I feel a bit of pressure that I wish weren’t there. It’s a middle/upper middle class pressure about making sure everything is just so for the kids. e.g., the school has to be a good fit (what happened to good enough?)…One day another parent at my school encouraged me to have one of my kids in a more competitive soccer (which would mean 2 practices a week and often 2 games on the weekend) because he’s got moves and would benefit from the higher level of training and competition…”
Here are the detailed responses. (Click image to enlarge.)
Of the 12% who answered “Other” the most common write-in answer was some version of “All of the above.” Other responses included “Not enough sleep,” “Feeling like I’m always rushing,” “There’s still not enough money,” “Civic involvement,” and “Being judged by others.”
“You ask about stress. As a working mom, it’s a constant state of being.”
“I fantasize about a Saturday afternoon alone in the house to clean the fridge. How sad it that?!”
“I’m so tired of feeling like I don’t measure up in every aspect of my life. Go to work? Miss time with kids. Work from home? Can’t give undivided attention. House dirty, laundry piled up, kids sick. The thread is breaking.”
“Both kids have special needs and really suffer from my absences. My wife really suffers when I have to work more than 40 hours a week, which is often. Weekends are also awful because we feel like they should be fun and relaxing but we have to catch up on all the housework and never get time off…I wonder why more parents don’t just up and die. Really.”
“I’m a great employee with an enviable education and career history who loves to work, but I have come to fear that the only job I can have to preserve my health is no job at all.”
What would make it better?
As Joan Blades and Nanette Fondas make clear in their book, The Custom-Fit Workplace, work-life balance is not a one-size-fits-all. Different people need different things, and those things may change over time. So it should come as no surprise that when I asked parents to choose one thing that would make their lives easier, there was no one dominant answer:
Other responses included “more affordable childcare,” “health benefits with part time work,” “less travel,” and being able to “turn off my blackberry.”
“In the 70s, our mothers changed the world’s attitude toward what women are capable of and opened countless doors for us, but we now need to take it a step further and recognize that 40-50 hours weeks do not work for all mothers, regardless of skill, intellect and drive. Shutting us out of the working world because flexible work hours are not an option is shortchanging so many aspects of society.”
“I wish there were more opportunities for me to grow as a professional while still maintaining my part-time schedule. I wish I didn’t have to choose between moving my career forward vs. having important time with my son while he’s young. I feel like I could do both if work were more flexible.”
Getting more help at home sometimes meant getting husbands to do more, but not always.
“When I say I wish I had “more help with chores,” I specifically mean I wish I had a housekeeper and a gardener, not that I wish my partner helped out more.”
“My partner (husband) is great about sharing tasks. That’s not it – it’s the finite nature of time and money. And the complete lack of financial security that I guess almost everyone feels – it hangs over me like a cloud.”
No survey is perfect. I’m just a former-journalist-turned-blogger, not an expert in sociology. The results of this survey wouldn’t make it into the journal Nature.
In the interest of keeping it short, there are lots of questions I didn’t ask. For example, I didn’t ask about lots of standard demographic things, like race or income level. I didn’t ask people’s occupations, although many people volunteered this information anyway. I didn’t ask if people had a child with special needs or grandparents who help. And I didn’t try to compare answers of stay-at-home parents with working parents. Instead, I just focused on working parents.
Also, everyone who took the survey opted into it. Which means they read my blog, or they know someone who knows someone who does, and they’re probably concerned about working parent stress to begin with. So this is not science. But I found the results compelling.
What did you think? And where do we go from here?
* Here is a PDF file of the survey questions if you would like to see the exact wording.
** In this survey, ‘full time’ was defined as more than 32 hours per week.
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