Workers conflicted over childcare responsibilities are less productive, study reveals

Researchers found that staff struggling to balance work and parental pressures inevitably prioritise family commitments

Parents who feel they are neglecting their childcare responsibilities while they are working are likely to be less productive at work, a study has found, with experts calling on businesses to do more to tackle this issue.

The research, by Durham Business School, found that when faced with conflicting work and childcare responsibilities, parents who already had lower levels of emotional stability were more likely to feel that their identity as a parent was under threat.

Because of the ‘shame’ this caused, these parents were more likely to compensate by putting more of their efforts into their childcare responsibilities at the expense of their efforts at work.

Dr Yingli Deng, assistant professor at Durham University Business School, explained that where work and childcare are seen as being in competition with each other, parents will reduce their efforts in one area in order to focus on the other.

“Working parents not only experience pressure to exemplify an ‘ideal’ worker role, but they are also expected to engage in intensive parenting practices to raise successful children,” she said. “But, although [work and childcare] roles can complement each other, many find achieving this balance challenging, and therefore end up prioritising childcare as it is deemed more important.”

The study, which observed nearly 300 working parents, found that higher levels of emotional stability helped mitigate feelings of shame and the threat to workers’ identities as parents.

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Parents with lower levels of emotional stability were more likely to negatively evaluate information, and tended to have higher levels of self-criticism and stronger emotional reactions to events.

It added that feelings of shame could be triggered by something as simple as being asked by a colleague whether time spent at work was reducing the amount of quality time they spent with their children.
Deng called on employers to do more to support parents, and said that managers could effectively support employers to achieve a balance between their responsibilities by providing them with flexibility and increased time away from work. Employers would benefit from more “focused and hardworking employees”, while working parents would gain extra time spent with their families, she said. 
“Organisations can [also] train managers to recognise employees’ shame, and work through those vulnerabilities by helping them to identify ways to proactively bounce back from their self-despair without withdrawing from their work roles,” Deng said.
Simon Kelleher, head of policy and influencing at Working Families said that flexible working practices are often beneficial for productivity and talent retention, but called on the government to deliver on the recent flexible working consultation.
“We continually hear from working parents and carers who are denied even modest flexible working requests and are having to make unenviable trade-offs to manage from going into debt to pay for childcare or leaving careers they had worked hard to build due to inflexibility,” he said.