HR & Management

Why parents struggle with flexible working

16 min read

10 April 2019

Editorial Director

The two biggest challenges facing working parents are flexible working arrangements and the cost of childcare. Policies and platitudes aren't enough. Here's why so many UK parents feel the pressure of imposter syndrome while juggling work and life.

One in four working parents have considered switching careers altogether to make their jobs work for their family lifestyle. This could mean a quarter of your talented workforce are looking to leave. Here’s how to keep them happy while getting the most done.

New research from LinkedIn has found that 36% of UK professionals believe their employer does not do enough to support new parents. Rising childcare costs makes it hard for working parents to balance the demands of work and life more so now than 20 years ago when parenting roles were less fluid.

The survey of 4,000 UK workers found that professionals feel they are being left in the dark when it comes to parental policies, with a third not even aware of what support their workplace provides for new parents. At the same time, 60% said their employer was not completely transparent about its parental policies when they joined.

The two biggest challenges facing working parents were identified as flexible working arrangements and the cost of childcare.

Crippling childcare costs are making working parents reconsider their careers

When it comes to childcare costs, just 23% of UK workers feel it is financially worthwhile returning to work after having a child. The average UK worker feels that covering the cost of childcare comfortably requires a household income of over £55,000 a year, with this rising to £73,000 in Greater London – a far reach from the average salary (£29,832 outside of London and £44,714 in Greater London).

As a result, parents are considering their options after returning to work. A quarter (26%) – rising to 29% for women – have considered switching careers altogether to find a job that is more accommodating to working families. And half of parents said that they delayed having a child – on average for up to two and a half years – in anticipation of the childcare bills they would have to cover.

Business leaders including Anna Whitehouse, founder of blogging platform ‘Mother Pukka’, working parent campaigner Christine Armstrong, CEO and author of ‘She’s Back’ Lisa Unwin, and executive search business owner David Hunt have been sparking conversation on LinkedIn. They’ve been opening up the debate about balancing parenting and working life and what businesses can do to support.

Tales from the frontlines

Whitehouse’s career as a media freelancer is hard to sum up in a sentence. “It’s a career that stemmed from failing to pick-up my daughter on time from nursery in 2015. I landed in a sweaty, mangled maternal heap at 6.13pm, apologising profusely and uttering excuses (‘Tube, meeting, late, dog, leaves on line, battery died, chewing gum-on-shoe’) to the matronly response from the duty manager of: ‘It’s not ideal’,” she says.

“It flipped a switch. I took out all frustration of this inflexible, expensive daycare system on this poor woman who is simply a cog in a hulking great machine that needs oil – a system that left me earning approximately £3 an hour after nursery costs were paid.”

It’s a system that’s priced nearly half a million British mothers out of work according to think tank IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) and it’s a system that leaves parents frazzled and shouting at those who are there to help, not hinder, Whitehouse adds.”It’s a system that led me to launching Flex Appeal – a campaign to push for flexible working for all. For those with mental health issues, for those with caring responsibilities, for those living with disabilities; for those simply wanting to live.”For Armstrong, campaigning for working parents comes from this demographic’s need for a unifying voice rather than a cause.”When I interview families about childcare, those with two parents almost always mentally deduct the cost of childcare from the mother’s income rather than from the whole household view,” she explains.

“So – say if their income between them is £40k, they don’t deduct childcare from that number – they compare it to what the mum earns and decide if she works based on that. Which is why you often hear women saying ‘you know after working a full month, I only have £50 to take home’ but you rarely hear men saying it. This is why expensive childcare tends to push women out of the workforce and we lose their talent.”

Working fathers are not exempt

Working fathers are not exempt from the pressures of having a career and wanting to be there for their children.”I speak as a father, as an employer and owner of a business, and as someone that has worked for over 20 years in talent acquisition. Yes, for a living I help companies to recruit and retain key talent, and I do so in very niche markets with small talent pools,” says executive search expert David Hunt.According to Hunt, the working world is fortunately very different now than it was when he had his first two children, now 19 and 15 years old. “At that time, as an ambitious and career focused young man I was forced to make sacrifices that I wouldn’t now make. I had a long commute, rigid and long office hours, and much time working away. It was tough. I justified the sacrifices by the money I earned and the house and comforts I was able to provide my family.”Now, as a father of a 5-year-old, he says he has not had to make anywhere near as many sacrifices, crediting part of it to being his own boss.

“You may say, ‘that’s fine if you run your own business, you can do what you want’. Anyone that is the founder of a startup will tell you the demands are as great, if not greater than any ‘job’ or career role.”

“I’d say the difference is in technology, mentality and enlightenment, also (let’s be honest, we all operate as people and as businesses) in enlightened self-interest,” he explains.

Why working parents face imposter syndrome

It’s a problem affecting all working parents, and the SMEs that hire them. But women tend to bear the brunt of it. Lisa Unwin believes that these conversations will force a societal shift that needs to happen. “I’ve worked with many mothers returning after a long career break and without exception they are inspirational, They are fired up. Returning is hard and they’ve had to put a lot in place to make this happen, unlike the thousands for whom tomorrow will just be another day at the office.  Don’t let your assumptions blind you to the opportunity.”

“Mothers returning after a break bring with them years of training and experience. That hasn’t gone away. They’ve had lives not lobotomies.”

Looking back at the LinkedIn research, flexible working was cited by 38% of workers as the most desirable policy for supporting parents. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report found that nearly nine in 10 UK businesses believe it helps employees achieve better work/life satisfaction, yet 38% of working women say they feel uncomfortable discussing flexible hours with their boss.
The top reasons for this include feeling their employer sees flexible working as an inconvenience (41%), fearing they will say no to requests (40%), feeling they will be seen as needy for requesting it ( 37%), and fearing they will be seen as less productive or committed to their job (33%).

The overwhelming feeling of crippling self-doubt and dread known as imposter syndrome has impacted a whopping 62% of people at work, according to a report by Access Commercial Finance. This study of over 3000 adults in the UK shows over two-thirds of women (66%) have suffered from imposter syndrome compared to over half of men (56%) within the last 12 months. This raises a significant question: are women more likely to experience feeling inadequate in the workplace?

What causes imposter syndrome at work?

Imposter syndrome can severely impact career progression and cause negativity at work. The infographic from Instant Offices below illustrates why it happens and the people it affects the most.

When surveyed on the reasons for experiencing crippling self-doubt in the workplace, these were the top four causes:

38% – Self-generated self-doubt

23% – Being criticised

20% – Having to ask for help

16% – Self-comparisons to high achieving colleagues

It’s not just employees who are impacted, a study by AXA PPP Healthcare shows one in five small business owners admitted to suffering from imposter syndrome and being convinced someone else could do a better job of running their business.

UK industries with the highest percentage of self-doubters

Imposter syndrome is more prolific in some industries compared to others. The same study of over 3000 UK adults revealed industries in which employees have experienced intense feelings of self-doubt in the last 12 months.

Highest

87% – Creative arts and design

79% – Environment and agriculture

79% – Information research and analysis

74% – Law

73% – Media and internet

Lowest

45% – Leisure, sport and tourism

54% – Property and construction

55% – Engineering & manufacturing

55% – Insurance

57% – Retail

Turning imposter syndrome around

Even though so many people have experienced imposter syndrome, specifically working parents, the good news is that it’s not a permanent condition but rather a reaction to a set of circumstances, unrealistic self-expectation and stress. Some of the most popular suggestions on ways to turn it around include the following.

Accept praise and know your worth

Don’t shy away from praise and compliments. Accept your achievements and if need be, write them down. When you try to talk yourself out of feeling confident in your role, all the proof is on paper. Knowing your worth means allowing your work to speak for itself and letting others see it too.

Stop thinking like an imposter

Learn to recognise self-defeating thought patterns and replace them with more positive affirmations. The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking of yourself as one.

Don’t seek perfection

Stop believing that if you don’t excel at every facet of your job that you’re a failure at all of it. Facing challenges and losses is a key part of growth, so recognise that you don’t have to be good at everything.

Know you are not alone

Imposter syndrome tends to be the domain of overachievers, while underachievers tend to internalise less when faced with failure. If you’re constantly worried about not being good enough, chances are you’re in good company – most successful people constantly over analyse themselves!

Imposter syndrome can happen at any time in your career, but the fact that working parents and mothers returning to the workforce specifically deal with added pressure of being perceived as less driven than their childless peers can be crippling.

“The feeling of thinking someone is going to come in and call you out on your experience, your achievements and put you in a league much lower than you are currently working at is very real,” says Jodie Harris, head of content and digital PR at MediaVision.

“From being an intern to being in the boardroom, questioning your place at the table can be disruptive to your progress and your confidence. One piece of advice I always tell my teams and myself is that your career did not come by chance, and where you are now and where you aim to be is justified. Know your worth and have conviction with your career goals.  Success isn’t a lottery ticket, it’s earned.”

Work perks and policies to consider

The LinkedIn survey findings also revealed that the top workplace perks and policies that would help parents balance work and family.

  • More flexible and agile working
  • A creche onsite or nearby
  • Paid-for childcare or subsidies
  • Better maternity or paternity pay
  • Better pay and bonuses
  • Equal paternity rights for men

How has your business helped to support working parents and what are the challenges you’ve faced supporting parents in the workplace? How do you leverage your family policies and flexible working practices to attract candidates and retain top talent? Let us know via email to share your story on Real Business.