Parents feel guilty for a variety reasons. Sometimes they believe they’re overworking and not spending enough time with family. Or they have to take little Bobby, who just broke his arm in gym class, to the hospital and miss work. Whether caregivers feel pressured when work intrudes on family, or family imposes on work, guilty feelings are often a fact of life for many working parents.
According to work-life balance researchers Beth Livingston and Timothy Judge at the University of Florida, parental guilt is remorse related to feeling that you’ve somehow violated a moral or social standard. Parents feel guilt if they perceive they haven’t met certain social obligations involving their roles of parent and worker.
Women, in particular, suffer daily internal conflict and guilt associated with these dual roles. But increasingly, men are feeling the same inner turmoil as they, too, try to balance work and home obligations
When parents feel they are not performing effectively as moms and dads or workers, stress results. Torn between the two roles, they believe they are doing neither job well enough to feel fulfilled. Guilt is not just a personal feeling. It becomes an organizational issue: The psychological toll taken when staff are overwhelmed with guilt has implications for organizations dedicated to high performance and productivity. The guilty workers may be more distracted, less productive and less satisfied. Yet, not all parents experience the same kind of guilt.
The researchers observed in a recent study in The Journal of Applied Psychology that those who believe you should be able to keep work and home separate can feel guilty when the “good worker” standard is violated and family creeps into work. But not everyone feels this type of guilt. For example, staff who believe men and women should share both work and family care roles may feel more guilt when the “good wife, husband, mother, father, child” standard is violated by work interfering with family.
However, workers of either stripe experience guilt when it comes to juggling work and home. They can experience high levels of anxiety, depression, psychosomatic symptoms such as tension headaches, and hostility when undergoing stressors related to work-family conflict However, organizations and employees can counteract the debilitating effects of guilt.
What Organizations Can Do
• Offer flexible work arrangements including flexible hours, telecommuting and numbers of days worked.
• Offer variable hours including different start and end times, reduce the number of hours worked in the week, limit overtime demands.
• Listen to your staff. Ask them what they need to help them deal with their home, family and work lives effectively.
• After you listen, poll, survey and probe, implement changes and expand policies that help employees do a good job in both spheres.
• Explore the organizational culture. Is the organization taking staff needs and concerns seriously or is it adding to the pressure by not adapting. Family needs and staff sensibilities are changing and organizations need to understand this. For example, employees are more interested in juggling work and family than they were a decade ago, is the organization keeping up with shifting mores?
What Employees Can Do
• Look closely at your expectations for yourself. Are you putting too much pressure on yourself to maintain unrealistically high expectations at either work or home?
• Has there been a change in your family (your elderly mother just moved in) or job responsibilities (you just got a promotion) that you are not taking into account when you build your expectations for your performance in either sphere?
• Ask for help from your employer, spouse or decide to pay for meal delivery, child or eldercare to compensate.
• Look at what you are doing right: what work and parenting activities can you take pride in? Focus on your positive contributions to work and home rather than on what you are not doing.
• Accept yourself and your limitations. In a world where we are sometimes led to believe we have to do it all, remember the words “have to” and “should” are guilt inducing and really don’t help get the job at hand done. Whether you are working to a deadline or picking Jane up from the baby sitter, “should” and “have to” drain your energy.
Whether you hold fast to traditional beliefs about work and home or more egalitarian ideals about the latter doesn’t matter much when it comes to packing around guilt. Parental and worker guilt are ubiquitous, equal opportunity emotions that reduce the quality of life and one’s performance if left unaddressed. Both staff and the organizations they work for have a role to play in alleviating staff guilt—company policy can help a lot and staff who re-examine their expectations can send guilt packing too.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. Dr. Newman can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org