As Tensions Between Colleagues Reaches Breaking Point, Here’s How To Avoid Being The Working Parent That Everyone Hates

The friction between parents and non-parents in the office is reaching new heights.

Working mum

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

‘We have a platform of resources for working parents and one of the most popular pieces parents click on is about how not to be the working parent that everyone hates. It goes to show that even before the pandemic there was friction between parents and non-parents in the workplace and that has only grown in recent months.’

Lindsay Chadwick and Helen Lamb are co-founders of Parent Scheme, a service primarily for employers that provides tools to help them support working parents – and advice systems for parents needing guidance. Unsurprisingly, their platform has been more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic as parents struggle to balance employment, childcare and schooling.

The friction that Chadwick speaks of – between staff with children and those without - made headlines this week after internal grievances at tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter were leaked to the press.

According to The New York Times, Facebook employees caused a stir in a companywide meeting recently after repeatedly arguing that work policies created in response to Covid-19 ‘have primarily benefited parents’. At the same time, a spat was breaking out on an internal message board on Twitter after one employee without children accused another who was on leave to look after their child of not working hard enough.

Facebook offered up to 10 weeks paid time off for employees who needed to care for someone, be it a child whose school had closed or older relative whose nursing home had shut down. Mark Zuckerberg also announced companies would not be scoring performance for the first six months of 2020 because of the ‘change in our lives and our work’. Google and Microsoft have extended similar paid leave to employees with children or sick relatives.

Where is the empathy for those now doing two full-time jobs from home?

Despite every employee at Facebook receiving a bonus usually reserved for high performers, tension still remained due to the supposed preferential treatment for working parents. ‘Where is the empathy for those now doing two full-time jobs from home?’ I hear you ask. Well, according to the aggrieved staff, it’s not about the increase in support for parents but the fact their needs aren’t being heard too – i.e. the mental health strains we all faced during the pandemic, from loneliness to stress, that were arguably made harder for those ‘picking up the slack’ for others on paid leave.

‘I think the friction reflects how stressed and rundown everyone is with the pandemic,’ Chadwick explains. ‘It’s been so difficult for everybody and it's just as difficult for somebody who's living alone in a flat without a garden, as it is for someone who suddenly got children at home. Because of that everybody is now at the stage where they're looking for their effort to be recognized and appreciated - and just for people to acknowledge how hard it is. So if it feels like the only people that are getting any acknowledgement of how hard it is are parents, that doesn’t feel quite right.’

‘In America, the leave policies are generally slightly different than in the UK,’ Lamb adds. ‘They generally get 10 days paid leave so additional paid time off is a big trigger for people feeling like there's a huge amount of extra investment and care being given to those people.’

If you're going to only give a benefit to some employees, it breeds a sense of us versus them.

‘If, as an employer, you're going to take a massive benefit that really matters to people and only give it to a subsection of employees you have to think carefully about how you're going to appreciate the people who aren't included in that,’ Lamb continued. ‘A lot of them will be on a 10 days paid leave per year and now suddenly they’re picking up the work for a bunch of colleagues who have been given an extra month. You can see how that’s going to breed a sense of “us versus them” within the workforce rather than a sense of support.’

For Chadwick and Lamb, dealing with tensions like this not just in the US but in the UK too means helping HR teams develop their support for staff in a more inclusive way. ‘The clients getting in touch with us want to make sure that as well as supporting working parents, they’re recognizing the experience of everyone else in their workforce,’ Chadwick explained. ‘But also, HR teams are increasingly conscious that the pandemic has impacted on working parents and if they lose a lot of their female talent that could really impact on gender pay gap and lots of work that's been done to have women in senior leadership positions.’

‘So I think they are concerned for working parents, but they're just keen to do it in a way that doesn't fail to recognize that there's other people in the workplace that also need that support.’

Parents too, it seems, are conscious of the growing tension between them and their non-parent colleagues. But the problem is, as Chadwick says, there’s only so much time to worry about that when you also have 1000 other jobs to do.

‘Parents are definitely struggling at the moment,’ she says. ‘All parents are tired after a long period of children at home and they just got kids back to school but now we’re going back into a stricter lockdown, we ran a survey and 95% of parents are really anxious that schools might shut again.

‘Parents are conscious that other people have needs and really do want to act in a way that makes the world not revolve around them,’ she continues. ‘But sometimes it’s really hard to do that when you’re completely knackered, you’ve got kids running in on conference calls or are trying to get kids back to schools and there’s no wraparound care.’

Given that ParentScheme's most popular resource for parents is about not being the working parent that everyone’s hates, it goes to show just how insecure parents are about what their peers think of them. But taking advantage of employer support needn’t be another thing to load onto the guilt train of parenting - after all, your colleagues aren’t really angry at you, they’re angry at their employer.

For Chadwick and Lamb, you can get around the fear of being that person by asking yourself a few simple questions and adapting behaviour accordingly. Here, they explain what they are and why you should be asking them.

What was your perception of working parents before you had children? What, if anything, used to annoy you about them at work?

‘I do remember before I had children thinking that working parents looked stressed and rushed all of the time and that they felt quite guilty,’ says Chadwick. ‘That meant that they weren’t always were I wanted them to be to ask questions. Now I have children I find that really helpful to reflect back on because our team doesn’t have children so I can ask myself “Where might I not be helping them or thoughtful enough about wanting extra time with me?”. Remember what it was like before you were tired.’

How do you show that you value other people’s life commitments?

‘This is such an important one like inclusion,’ says Chadwick. ‘We really naturally ask people how their kids are because often they popped into a video conference or the parent has talked about them. But there’s lots of people that have other things in their life that are just as important to them whether that’s a pet or a hobby. I worked with someone who was part of a choir and that was a big deal for them to get away on certain days of the week. The question is designed to prompt you to think about what you can do, as in how would someone know you value that? Is it saying “Oh I remember you’ve got this on today, I’ll make sure you leave on time.” It’s just prompting thoughtfulness.

How much do you know about your colleagues who don’t have children?

‘This is another one that prompts you to remember, “Have you actually asked them anything about themselves?”’ says Chadwick.

‘In the context of the tension between parents and non-parents, giving working parents extra time off does mean that there's a bunch of work that still needs to be done that you're assuming other people will pick up,’ adds Lamb. ‘So, how do you show the appreciation for other people that have stepped in? Asking them about themselves or their lives show’s that you value them but also making gestures like ordering a takeaway for everyone in the team and having lunch together - you’re taking time out to appreciate them and get to know them better.’

How many personal conversations do you have at work that don’t involve you mentioning your children?

‘People who have children often talk as if everyone’s really interested in them all of the time,’ says Chadwick. ‘My observation even as a parent is, of course we all love hearing one or two funny stories about peoples kids but it gets fairly boring if it’s all the time. So, what’s a similar thing? Just because you don’t have children doesn’t mean you don’t have a life that you want to talk about.’

How have you shown consideration for the concerns and worries of others during the pandemic?

‘There’s been so much focus in the pandemic on schools being closed particularly recently, and rightly so because that has had a huge impact on the well-being of working parents,’ says Chadwick. ‘But how do you also recognize as a parent that you're not the only one finding things difficult? I know some really great parents who make a concerted effort to call everyone in their team when they haven’t got children around to make sure their okay and check in.’

‘We were consulting with some interns who are all young 20-somethings, and they just made a passing comment about how hard it is moving from your bed to your desk all day and all night,’ adds Lamb. ‘So it’s just recognising we’ve all had a really different experience and we don’t want to compare easier and harder it’s just acknowledging different pressures.’

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