Working parents in the “next normal”


Illustration: Sofia Azcona  

The New York Times in February referred to a “primal scream” working parents in the US were facing, be it due to working from home with kids, rising unemployment or simply being “on the brink” of a breakdown. 

The publication had also opened up “the primal scream line”, a voicemail ­service where parents could vent their frustration--or simply scream--during their toughest moments of the pandemic. As one parent said, “I wish I had the energy to scream. All my energy goes into getting through every day, until I can go to sleep… it just feels like failing, every day, at everything I do… I don’t know how to keep doing this. But there isn’t really another option.”

As a working parent myself, I’ve felt this same defeat--even if it has eased a bit since the start of the pandemic. I try ­taking on additional responsibility at work one week, only to be halted in my tracks the next week, when my daughter’s schooling situation has changed because of yet another covid-19 case. I love my child--and I love my job--but somehow feel guilty, like I’m failing on all fronts as I juggle responsibilities, while trying to sway flexibly each time the wind shifts. 

I couldn’t help but wonder: were other working parents in Luxembourg experiencing this “primal scream”? And, if so, how could they be better supported?

“I was shattered”

Rose* is a mother of one who can relate to the “primal scream” first-hand. She had already switched to part-time work before the start of the health crisis in a bid to get a better work-life balance. She considers herself “lucky” that her business was closed at one stage, although her work environment has since ­adapted, with the majority of her services now online. 

Her husband, however, works in retail and was still required to be at the workplace each day. “At the beginning, that was really stressful, because we didn’t know anything about the virus,” Rose says. “He would come home from work every day, put his clothes in the washing machine, go take a shower… I was quite anxious about the possibility of him bringing home something from work [and] infecting us, having our child infected.”

She took advantage of the extraordinary family leave at least twice and, while grateful for it, explains, “we didn’t have any other options. Like a lot of expats, we don’t have family here in Luxembourg... and from the employer side, my boss was not great about it,” although she didn’t add details. 

But even with the leave, it was difficult to get “time to breathe”, she says. “During the week, I was shattered at the end of every day. By Friday, it was game over.” Rose says she told her husband he’d need to “step up on the weekends” to give her the break she desperately needed, which helped. And, although she still has some anxiety, she admits it’s not as intense now. “I feel we’re at the tail end--maybe that’s just being optimistic--but I see people getting vaccinated, going back to semblance of normal life… that carrot dangling in front of us has made things a lot better.”

Debra*, an expat mother of three, also says her anxiety peaked during last spring’s lockdown. Among her thoughts: “If we got sick, would the kids get sick? What if we can’t function? How would they survive for 10 days?” Her own children’s worries about covid-19 only added to that stress. (She admits that today she has a “very different” outlook than she did a year ago.) 

Part of what helped her cope were ­personal decisions--increasing her frequency of going running, and the fact that when she started working full-time she had hired cleaning help--“a huge mental game changer,” she adds. 

Debra and her husband also alternated stints on extraordinary family leave, and she feels lucky to have been in Luxembourg during the pandemic. In her home country (intentionally omitted to protect her privacy), her friends worked full-time while trying to homeschool. “I don’t know how they’ve been functioning,” she adds. 

Debra also praises her employer for being supportive while she was on the leave. “They were wonderfully respectful and accommodating and understanding. I’m so grateful.”

“Parents are exhausted”

Kanner-Jugendtelefon (KJT) runs the Elterentelefon (parents’ hotline), and 2020 proved “a rather turbulent and exceptional year for us... in general, calls were significantly more intense,” according to KJT psychologist Aline Hartz. 

Although there were 10% fewer contacts than in 2019, there was a 32.1% rise in those seeking online help, which Hartz says could be related to the fact that there was less privacy at home. Female callers were “disproportionally represented” (130 female callers, 30 male, 1 unknown), and there was a 25% increase in calls lasting more than 30 minutes. The main reasons for the calls were “more conflicts in families, [and] intensity of conflict… parents are exhausted and sometimes overburdened.” 

More recently, in January 2021, the education ministry conducted a survey among 4,200 parents, 79% of whom confirmed they’d felt particular stress since the start of the health crisis. The reasons? Over half cited “the general atmosphere linked to the health crisis,” and 40% cited “challenges posed by reconciling family and professional life”. 

“Fertile ground for reflection”

With the vaccination programme underway, many organisations are considering what future work arrangements will look like. One notable example is Citigroup, which made headlines when chief exec Jane Fraser launched Zoom-free Fridays. She also designated 28 May as a company-wide “reset day”. 

On the other hand, that very same week, Goldman Sachs came under scrutiny with staff claims of 18-hour shifts and employee burnout. 

Despite “Zoom fatigue” and the desire for face-to-face contact, many working parents--Rose and Debra included--have reaped benefits to more flexible working arrangements. There’s less time commuting, more time for family. Debra says that prior to their move, she and her husband were “fairly equal homemakers”, but in Luxembourg, he’s working “60 to 70 hours a week,” which forced her to shoulder extra tasks at home. Sure, his meetings might still run until 9pm--but as he’s working fully from home, Debra has appreciated that he is able to be “present”, using his half-hour breaks to help out with homework or dinner. 

Law firm Arendt is one such company that has a “generalised flexibility” policy which, while not specifically designed for working parents, undoubtedly helps them. As Isabelle Lebbe, partner in charge of diversity, and human resources director Eidine Bossy explain, “what the health crisis has had a positive impact on is our internal culture, the disappearance of guilt when personal life interferes with [professional] life and an increase in understanding and solidarity. The boundaries between professional and private life have become blurred, especially with teleworking, and each of us has been affected (whether or not we are parents), which has brought us closer together and opened up a dialogue that is beneficial to everyone.”

One challenge they see among clients is in the realm of “the right to disconnect”, although they add: “The ground is now fertile for a real in-depth reflection on this subject”. They also express concern in another area. “[We] noted that the crisis has amplified existing imbalances in the private sphere in terms of household ­management,” Lebbe and Bossy explain. “­Supporting diversity remains one of our priorities, and we were concerned to see that unfortunately the majority of parental leave taken during the crisis was taken by mothers and not fathers.”

Policies for success

Arendt was, in fact, one of eight companies in 2020 to receive the Actions ­Positives label, which recognises actions to promote equality between men and women at work. Its action plan involved the creation of an internal DNA (Diversity & Inclusion Network at Arendt), comprised of 100 volunteers who proposed innovative ideas.    

The AP initiative was modernised in September 2020 by the minister of equality between women and men, Taina ­Bofferding (LSAP). A ministry spokesperson tells Delano that “interest remains positive” and that some of the policies companies can implement which could benefit working parents include flexible working schemes, reduced working hours, stress management training, toolkits on managing remote work or workloads, even “providing anonymous external phone support free of charge for employees needing psychological help”. 

Among the noteworthy achievements made by AP programme participants was the “organisation of web seminars for managers, male and female employees, explaining why parenthood is good for business: being a parent is a job that millions do every day, but business traditionally viewed employees becoming parents as a challenge. To change this idea, a digital life-based training programme was created that harnesses and recognises parenting skills in business; the ‘soft’ skills parents develop, such as empathy, creativity, communication, managing time effectively and leadership, [which] are vital for companies to be successful.”

The trust factor

Christina Clark, founder & CEO of Workculturati--a company empowering others to foster an authentic, thriving company culture--has similar ideas that organisations can consider onboarding to support working parents.First, consider giving permission to vent by launching a confidential, anonymous employee hotline for employees to voice concerns on juggling home and work. Second, consider dedicating one person internally to help demystify grey areas between company and employee expectations regarding flexible or hybrid working. Third, redefine productivity and encourage clear boundaries for space to switch off. This could be through experimenting with a reduced workweek, or an all-company well-being day off, for example.

Her bonus tip? “Gratitude: it costs ­nothing.” 

Clark cites a pre-pandemic Harvard University and Wharton study which showed that productivity was boosted by over 50% when employees received a simple “thank you” from a leader or manager. And while we’re used to expressing gratitude in our personal sphere, it’s less likely in the workplace--even though one of the top reasons employees leave companies is because they feel underappreciated. 

“The pandemic has highlighted the need to have difficult sociocultural conversations about workplace trust and presenteeism,” Clark adds. “This is pivotal to help establish a new benchmark for social health at work.” 

She also shared a quote from the book Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. “Trust is like lubrication,” Sinek wrote. “It reduces friction and creates conditions much more conducive to performance.”

This echoes Debra’s hopes, too. “What I’m hoping comes from [the pandemic] is trust from employers,” she says. “If employees were good enough to hire, they outshone other candidates, employers should still have trust in their ability to get stuff done.”

While she understands the need for “water-cooler moments [and] collaboration”, she hopes companies will rid themselves of the “butt-in-seat-in-cubicle mentality” and opt for a hybrid working model if possible. The level of trust required for working at home during the pandemic, she hopes, will be maintained by employers, but she’s convinced employers will see the return as well. “In turn, we will want to work even harder for them.” 

*Names have been changed at interviewees’ request 

This article was originally published in the Delano May 2021 print edition