Talk to them to better support working parents


The pandemic may be ebbing, but one of its most damaging effects is not. Two years and countless interruptions of Zoom conversations by small children, and we still don’t have enough and effective communication between hardworking moms and dads, frontline managers and senior leaders of our organizations. Without strong ties between these three parties, it will be very difficult for working parents who are still struggling with pandemic stress to get through the coming months – and for all of us to get to a better, more workable place on the other side.

Here is the picture of the working parent communication, now:

Working moms and dads are demoralized and exhausted from more than two years of extreme logistics for work and care. And for many — such as those with children under five, who are still ineligible for vaccines — the challenges remain. To make matters worse, many or most parents are hesitant to openly talk to their managers about their personal situation (burnout, childcare closure) for fear of misunderstanding, judgment, or retaliation. Most managers have genuine sympathy for colleagues with children, but they have their own jobs and families to take care of, and worry about hooking up to cover any childcare crisis or acting as workplace therapists. So instead of engaging team members in an open conversation, they withdraw and focus on the work tasks at hand. Senior leaders are doing their best to deliver important messages and outcry about 2022 goals, the return to work and how to rebuild team culture — but those messages just don’t get through. It seems that employees don’t listen or don’t care, and senior leaders are increasingly confused and frustrated.

The overall result is like a video call that goes horribly wrong: we’re all screaming, wanting to be heard, and have all lost control of the mute button.

Here are some strategies and techniques that each of us—leaders, managers, and individual moms and dads—can use to get the lines of communication open and working now.

Senior leaders

Your first task is to get the facts about what working moms and dads in your organization are really dealing with. Sure, you’ve heard a lot about stress in working parents over the past two years, but do you know exactly what those stressors look like for your people these days? Perhaps parents in field offices are struggling to adapt to the hybrid work model, or perhaps the nationwide shortage of formulas is causing difficulties for newer parents.

Without this context, there is a very real risk that you will appear as the leader who doesn’t get it, or worse, the leader who doesn’t care. And that, in turn, will make it very difficult to get overwhelmed working parents — who probably make up a significant portion of your workforce — to listen to and follow you.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to get the insights you need. You can get up-to-date, detailed information through polls, focus groups, your HR team, or simply by walking around. Whatever the resources, maintain the credibility of your leadership by figuring out what’s really going on.

Then adapt your communication style by anchoring important business or organizational messages in the present and on a human scale, rather than around facts, figures and plans. Instead of starting your next town hall with your five-year growth goals, try starting with a statement like, “Despite the incredible challenges and stress that we and our families are all now facing, I want you to know that I have faith in the future of our organization and without compromising everything we are dealing with today, I want to share what that future looks like….” In other words, meet and connect with your listeners where they are before turning to your leadership agenda and the bottom line.

frontline managers

You want your team members to stay motivated – and you want to be supportive without being over-promising. Three simple techniques will help.

Ask open questions.

A friendly “Is there some important context you want me to have about your life outside of work?” isn’t nosy, and it doesn’t mean you’re willing to lower any workplace standard. You’re just showing that the communication door is open, which will read as supportive, and be a powerful relief to any working mom or dad.

Praise how your team members work, rather than what they produce.

Realize that Covid has taken a terrible toll on the self-esteem of virtually every working parent. Prior to the pandemic, that savvy accountant on your team may have prided itself on being hardworking, additionally knowledgeable, considerate, and so on. But after two years of distance learning, quarantines, and uncertainty, she probably doesn’t feel any of those things — more like overwhelmed, insecure, or even failure. If she’s in that headroom, your typical “Hey, well done, and thanks for the budget numbers” type of praise won’t last.

Instead, offer a comment like, “Thank you, as always, for working so hard on the budget numbers, and I really appreciate your expert view here.” In other words, let the other see and experience herself as the perfect professional she wants to be.

Highlight progress and momentum.

Imagine a high-speed treadmill with no off button: For most working moms and dads, that’s what the pandemic felt and still feels like. No matter how hard we run, we can’t make progress — and that lack of forward movement is demotivating.

To re-motivate your people, show them how far they’ve come. So when we talk about the R&D effort, mention “the incredible progress we’ve made as a team”. In your next one-on-one, tell that direct report that you’re “impressed with the impact you’ve made in such a short time.” The more you can give working moms and dads a tangible sense of progress, the more they will want and be able to keep going.

Individual working mothers and fathers

You’re so exhausted and frustrated that you could scream – but screaming probably won’t give you the flexibility or “give” you want right now. This is what will.

Share more solutions and less emotion.

Telling your boss “I’m exhausted” can be transparent and honest, but it’s not a statement they can do something about right away. Plus, that manager probably feels just as tense as you do, and may react with indignation upon hearing words like “burnout” or “exhausted” (don’t he know I’m tired of this too?!) instinct to run from which promises to be an unpleasant conversation, and neither will benefit you.

Instead of venting, ask about the vacation time you want and mention, for example, how it will make you better able to handle the new client work. Make it an easy, accessible process for your boss to get you what you need.

Lead with your intentions.

Worried about being misread or misunderstood? Then address those concerns immediately. A statement like, “I’m not here to complain about my workload, but I’m here to discuss the possibility of shifting my hours in the coming weeks” clarifies both your goals and directs your manager to the right next steps.

Avoid immediate crisis framing.

The pandemic has sparked one blazing fire after another, and most executives and leaders are just as nervous, hypervigilant, and tired as you are. So if you’re talking about the flex-work setup you’re hoping for, try to stay out of emergency mode. A calmness “I am not pressing for an answer today. Think about it, and we’ll regroup” will probably work better than demanding an immediate response.

While you scanned the above recommendations, they may have seemed strange or even exaggerated. Why should I make a concerted effort for what should be simple conversations? If so, remember: we roll under tremendous pressure and conditions. Just as we have adapted in so many other – hopefully temporary – ways, we can also adapt the way we talk to each other. To advance ourselves, our careers and our organizations, we need to stay connected.

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