Features

Finding a calm balance

11 April 2019

A stressful working life can impact on families’ health and wellbeing, too. How can CPs support parents in a meaningful and non-judgmental way? Journalist Rima Evans reports.

If working parents tell you they’re feeling burned-out by work – or if indeed you’re feeling it – you may not be that surprised to read the following statistics. For every 100,000 workers in Great Britain, 1800 suffer work-related stress, depression or anxiety, a trend that has worsened over the last few years and is caused mainly by mounting workloads (Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 2018). In all, a worrying 1.4 million working people in the UK endure a work-related illness (HSE, 2019). And the UK has the longest working week in Europe to boot, according to a survey by Eurostat (2018).

Unhealthy figures indeed. Perhaps even more upsetting is that working life can also impact negatively on the wellbeing of families and children. This year’s Modern families index highlights that, overall, 78% of parents said they put in extra hours at work every week (Working Families and Bright Horizons, 2019). Yet the trade-off can be unsatisfactory. In the report, parents admitted that work ‘regularly and negatively spilled over into home life, disrupting everyday activities as well as health and wellbeing’.

These activities included saying goodnight to their children, helping them with homework or playing or reading with them. The conflict between home and work life also damaged relationships – 28% of the parents surveyed said they argued more with their children and 32% with their partner.

Another recent study draws a link between children’s health and their parents’ stress about work (Ohu et al, 2018). Researchers report that children’s health is less likely to be negatively affected when their parents feel a sense of control over their work lives. This is because too many stressors, felt most when job demands are high and job autonomy low, influence the self-control they bring to parenting, compromising their ability to be at their best as parents.

The link: work stress and family

‘Parental self-control was linked to better health outcomes for children,’ says co-author of the study on work stress and children’s health, Christiane Spitzmueller. In other words, how we parent when we experience high levels of stress is probably fundamentally different from how we parent when we are coping well (Kever, 2019).

Chartered counselling psychologist Aimee McCarthy describes how that might be played out. ‘As a result of stress from increased workloads, parents report, for example, being more ‘shouty’ with their children and having less patience. They don’t spend as much time talking with their children as they want to, because the end of the day becomes more of a task to complete than being seen as quality time they can spend together as a family over a meal or reading a story.’

Aimee also highlights that parents who don’t work long into the evening can still be affected. ‘They can still be thinking about work, which limits emotional availability and capacity for time with children. If we are not able to be present with our children, we can’t connect with them in a way that’s nurturing and strengthens the attachment. We risk missing difficulties they may be going through.’

Quality relationships

Counsellor at relationship charity Relate Denise Knowles says: ‘Where children persistently and routinely feel parents are not there for them, there’s a risk of them feeling anxious or needy. And they won’t understand why this is happening.

‘Children could even withdraw and become completely self-reliant because they have learned not to depend on their primary caregivers. There is potential for long-term attachment difficulties. And it’s all unintentionally created because parents are cramming so much in, made worse perhaps by sleep deprivation and a feeling of guilt.’

It’s not just a child’s direct relationship with its parents that’s important - interparental conflict can also negatively influence wellbeing. A 2016 report from Relate, The way we are now: the state of the UK’s relationships, is emphatic about this.

‘The benefits of good-quality family relationships extend beyond parents, and evidence shows the relationship between parents directly affects the wellbeing of their children,’ it says.

Yet work can also put undue pressure on these relationships. A lack of work-life balance featured in the top five causes of relationship strain for parents of 0 to five-year-olds and 11- to 18-year-olds (Relate, 2016).

Switching off 

Working families clearly require support if they are to ensure their children thrive – and of course ensure individual parents maintain good wellbeing too.

‘HVs might notice that the parents seem stressed and distracted or don’t put their phones down when interacting’  

Relate, alongside other organisations, identifies health visitors and other perinatal health services as being able to make an important difference here. They can provide advice to parents on minimising workplace stress and the impact that working life has on family life and wellbeing. But what’s the best advice to offer, and how can this be approached in a sensitive, non-judgmental way, without adding to parents’ guilt? It’s not as if people aren’t aware they work hard.

‘Health visitors can observe, engage their curiosity, and then just say what they see,’ advises Denise. ‘They might notice things like the children not engaging very much with their parents, that the parents seem stressed and distracted or don’t put their phones down when interacting because they are looking out for the next email or text.

‘Look for the signals or behaviours that suggest they are not fully present. Then ask the person whether there is anything they can do to support them. This allows the individual to tell their story without feeling judged.’

She adds: ‘Another tactic might be to say “I can see you are really busy, is now a good time to have a conversation or might it be better to chat another time?” It lets that person know you have noticed what is happening and may encourage them to open up and ask for help.’

As Denise says, it’s about empowering the family, so signpost to resources on achieving a better work-life balance or tips on reducing stress. ‘Talk about steps they can take to separate work life and family life,’ she adds.

Some of these steps may be fairly small but can still be effective. Susan Cartwright, professor of organisational psychology and wellbeing and director of the Centre for Organisational Health and Wellbeing at Lancaster University says using prompts to encourage switching from work mode to home mode can help.

‘One very senior executive framed a notice in the hallway of his house which said “Now stop thinking about work”. He saw it every time he came home from work and it was a prompt to switch off and focus on being a dad/husband.’

Stress management is also key. As part of this, you could ask your client what hobbies they enjoy and could pursue to help them relax, for instance (see Hobby help, below), as well as refer them to helpful websites (see Resources, at the bottom of this page).


Hobby help

Move more: A cohort study involving more than 33,000 adults found that just 60 minutes a week of activity, regardless of intensity, can have a protective effect against depression (Harvey et al, 2017).

Dig out the meccano: Learning throughout life has been shown to help improve and maintain mental wellbeing, and help people cope with stress. Lifelong learning includes rediscovering an old hobby that’s challenging – such as knitting or model-making – or even learning a new skill at work (NHS, 2018; Aked et al, 2008).

Colour in: A study has shown that adult colouring books may prove therapeutic as well as enjoyable (Ali, 2018). Researchers also found that ‘structured colouring of a reasonably complex geometric pattern may induce a meditative state that benefits individuals suffering from anxiety’ (Curry, 2005).


What about rights?

Extremely useful may be a discussion with your client that gets to the heart of the problem, exploring whether altering working arrangements are possible options.

Improving family-friendly working policies has been a major focus for government. And many employers themselves – in a bid to recruit and retain reliable, talented staff as well as meet their legal duty of care to protect the wellbeing of employees – are being more proactive in encouraging a healthier work-life balance.

For starters, by law, parents are entitled to maternity leave, paternity leave and shared parental leave. Mothers and fathers can share up to 50 weeks’ leave and up to 37 weeks’ pay (UK Government, 2019a).

Most UK employees are entitled to request flexible working, a change to their working hours or pattern, provided they have worked continuously for the same employer for 26 weeks (UK Government, 2019b). The statutory rules differ slightly in Northern Ireland (NI Government, 2019).

It’s worth a community practitioner (CP) having a chat with a family about these rights and entitlements, says Nikki Slowey, co-director of Family Friendly Working Scotland, which works with employers to promote family-friendly working cultures.

‘Flexible working, in particular, can help give working parents greater control and help them strike a better work-life balance.

‘It’s not just part-time working, or working from home, which people often assume. Flexible working could mean reducing hours, job sharing, compressed hours (total contracted hours over fewer days) or term-time working. It could even be a small adjustment to start and finish times, which can often make a huge difference.

‘There’s lots of information out there for parents about how to have a conversation with their employer about this. It’s certainly worth practitioners being aware of these resources so they can encourage struggling parents to explore what their options are.’


Who has the fairest work-life balance of them all?

  • Scandinavian countries dominate the top five regions that offer parents the best work-life balance.
  • According to a recent report (Expert Market, 2018), Sweden is number one, followed by Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark and Finland. The UK came in at 13th.
  • Areas analysed included minimum days of annual leave, average hours worked per year, statutory leave for mothers and fathers, and public spending on family benefits.

Unbalanced figures

  • 1.4 million working people in the UK endure a work-related illness.
  • Almost three in five NHS staff work additional unpaid hours every week.

HSE, 2019; 
NHS England, 2019


Approaching employers

Even if flexible working isn’t available, CPs can at least reassure a parent that it’s okay to approach a manager with their concerns around workload. Aimee points out that many workplaces have employee assistance programmes they may be able to access confidentially to get advice or free counselling.

‘Again, it’s about empowering that individual to have a discussion with their workplace, says Denise. ‘They shouldn’t assume nothing can be done. Many employers are sympathetic and will help.’

What about you?

When was the last time you took a hard look at your own work-life balance and took steps to keep it in check? Gently helping parents to see there may be workable options, from small self-help steps to practical changes and signposting for further information can all be invaluable for clients. But of course helping to minimise the potential for working life to impact family wellbeing extends to CPs too.

It can be hard, acknowledges Aimee. ‘In the caring professions, we are at risk of overcommitting ourselves and we struggle to say no.’

Following some of the advice already mentioned here might be a good first step in adopting healthier work routines. However, Aimee advises that one of the biggest changes you can make is in being kinder to yourself. ‘This means creating safe boundaries to work within. This is particularly important when resources are tight. For us to be helpful, we need to look after ourselves first.’

It’s crucial to quieten the critical voice, she adds. ‘Build your awareness and listen out for what you are saying to yourself. If you hear a lot of, “I should have done this” or “I really messed that up”, try to challenge that way of thinking. Think about a job you have done well or phrases you can say such as “I’m doing the best I can.”’

Aimee concludes: ‘If you can commit to being kinder to yourself regularly, you may see change in how you feel and behave.’


Resources

Advice on stress management and healthier working arrangements

  • Relate has tips on how partners can support each other when stressed at work, and information on counselling services for families and couples at relate.org.uk
  • Working Families has advice on all aspects of flexible working and work-life balance for parents and carers, as well as employers at workingfamilies.org.uk
  • The Mental Health Foundation offers support around work-life balance and on managing workplace stress at mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/w/work/life-balance
  • ACAS offers impartial advice for employees and employers on rights and entitlements at acas.org.uk
  • For information about flexible working laws in Northern Ireland, see bit.ly/NI_flexi
  • Find general tips on managing stress from the NHS at bit.ly/NHS_less_stress and bit.ly/NHS_mindfulness

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