Even though telecommuting has grown in popularity since the start of the pandemic, life-work balance still tends to be elusive. Here are a few obstacles that often get in the way, along with some helpful strategies to explore.
By Julie Leduc
1. A lack of support from employers
Life-work balance is often still viewed as being the responsibility of the individual. But no matter how organized you are, life-work balance is hard to achieve without your employer’s support! “Companies are doing more and more for life-work balance, but there is still some resistance,” says Dr. Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, a professor of human resources management at Université TÉLUQ.
According to a 2021 poll conducted by Réseau pour un Québec Famille, most Quebec companies (85%) claim to offer measures that support life-work balance. However, more than half of the measures they offer are informal. Life-work balance policies need to be formalized and in writing to ensure that parents feel comfortable using them.
“Even when these measures are in writing, they need to be made known to the employees and applied,” adds Dr. Tremblay. Unfortunately, even when there are formal policies in place, employers can be reluctant to put them into practice. Dr. Tremblay gives the example of fathers who work in male-dominated fields (i.e., construction or IT) who have a harder time requesting and receiving time off for family-related obligations.
She believes that the government should step in to ensure companies are offering parents more incentives. “Things are starting to change for fathers,” says Dr. Tremblay. This is also good news for mothers, because achieving life-work balance hinges on having the support of their spouse. On an encouraging note, in June 2022, the Ministère de la Famille invested 1.7 million dollars in projects related to promoting life-work balance.
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2. The challenges of having young children
Olivier and Élise, parents to 3.5-year-old Jules and 1-year-old Léo, know firsthand how hard it is to achieve life-work balance with two little ones. Olivier has a steady 9-to-5 job as a technician in an orthopaedic clinic, while Élise works as a stage manager, lighting designer, and technical director for theatre companies. Since their schedule varies, getting organized can be a challenge. “I often have to move everything around because my boys are sick,” says Élise.
“The lack of control parents have over how their day is organized can definitely be a challenge,” says Yarledis Coneo, head of the Concilivi expertise centre—an organization that helps companies implement measures to promote life-work balance. “Every morning, they wake up wondering whether or not they’ll be able to go to work.” She also says that, on average, in the first year after returning from parental leave, mothers take 16 days off work to care for a sick child, while fathers take 8 days.
At home, parents also have a lot on their plate. Around this age, children are less independent and require a lot of care and attention. “I haven’t seen the bottom of our laundry basket in two years,” says Élise.
Access to childcare is also a challenge. “Our boys are at two different daycare centres at the moment,” says Olivier. That means more travel, which requires more time. In other families, the lack of spaces in daycare is preventing parents—especially mothers—from going back to work.
3. An unequal distribution of tasks
Mélissa is a nurse and her partner, Jérémie, is a refrigeration technician in the construction industry. She works four days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. He works very early in the morning and sometimes at night. For them and their three daughters, being disorganized is not an option! Évelyne is 5 years old, and their twins Ophélie and Marianne are aged 3. “If I make dinner, Jérémie is in charge of bath time,” says Mélissa. “Dividing tasks based on our strengths helps us be more efficient.” She often cooks meals in advance on Sundays. “While she’s meal prepping, I play outside with the girls,” says Jérémie. “I also involve them in household tasks. For example, we did some gardening together.”
Even if fathers like Jérémie are becoming increasingly involved at home, mothers still do more. In fact, they spend about 5.5 hours a day doing household chores and taking care of their children. Fathers, on the other hand, tend to spend around 4 hours on such tasks. It’s also important to consider a parent’s mental load, which is the hidden work related to managing a family (e.g., making grocery lists, planning meals, registering for activities, booking appointments). This constant weight of responsibility increases stress and fatigue, and mothers must often bear the brunt of it. “I’m the brains of the family,” says Mélissa. “Not being able to outsource this task to someone else can be hard!”
Organizational psychologist Guylaine Deschênes has a solution to improve how the mental load is shared between spouses. When it comes to dividing tasks, she suggests that couples think like a government. “Parents can take on various ministries. Think finance, health, food . . . The parent who is the appointed Minister of Health is responsible for making medical appointments. In turn, the parent who is acting as Minister of Food takes care of the meal planning and grocery lists.”
4. Unrealistic parental expectations
Training for a 10K, registering kids for classes and activities, cooking healthy meals every day . . . Sometimes, parents want to do too much and overload their schedule, making life-work balance more difficult to achieve. “It’s better to do fewer activities, but to enjoy them more,” says Dr. Deschênes. “A parent who isn’t on the run all the time will be more relaxed and available for their child.”
Mélodie, mother of 5-year-old Alexis and 2-year-old Olivia, recognizes that she can’t give 100% everywhere, all the time. “There are days when I feel like I haven’t played with the kids enough, but I try not to pressure myself to be a perfect parent,” she says.
According to Dr. Deschênes, parents who strive for perfection are at risk of anxiety, depression, and burnout. She encourages them to lower their expectations. “It’s okay to vacuum less often, delegate tasks, and buy prepared food from time to time,” she says. “It’s also important to spend a little bit of time on self-care every day.”
If you feel irritable, impatient, or overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to ask your partner or a friend for help. “When possible, taking a half day or full day off work can help recharge your batteries,” says Dr. Deschênes. Talking to a professional can also be beneficial.
5. Not enough time at home
Working from home usually means spending less time commuting, which can be a major timesaver. But for some parents, remote work isn’t an option. According to Statistics Canada, only 40% of Canadian jobs are suitable for telecommuting. What’s more, for many parents, working from home is not ideal.
According to Coneo, paid time off to fulfill family obligations is the most helpful. Currently, the Act respecting labour standards allows employees to miss up to 10 days of work for family reasons, with only the first two days being remunerated. Some employers offer additional paid time off for unforeseen events. “Others have a special bank of paid time off that parents can take during the first year back from parental leave,” says Coneo. “Unfortunately, this type of policy is quite uncommon.”
Having a flexible schedule can also help you deal with unforeseen events. It allows you to start and finish whenever you like, as long as you work the required number of hours. Having a schedule that’s distributed over two weeks—35 hours one week and 40 hours the next—can also be helpful, especially in families where the parents are separated and share custody of their children.
The key to achieving life-work balance is to use a variety of measures. For example: having a flexible schedule, working from home one day a week, and having paid time off if your child gets sick. Ideally, both parents should be able to benefit from these policies.
6. The high toll on mothers
Even now, mothers take more time off than fathers to take care of their children. Many women have jobs that they can do from home and prefer to telecommute. “But this can be risky,” says Dr. Tremblay. “When they’re working from home, mothers often find themselves doing more household tasks than their partners. There are also career-related risks. Employees who work from home tend to be less visible. Managers may think they’re unavailable and not consider them for interesting assignments or more challenging roles.”
Before you and your partner become parents, it can be helpful to discuss how you’ll achieve equality—this is what Mélodie and Rodolphe did. “My job is just as important as his,” says Mélodie. “We try to make things as fair as possible. We both work from home, and every day, one of us takes the kids to daycare and the other picks them up.”
7. The consequences of working less
“During the pandemic, my clinic had reduced hours and I finished earlier,” says Olivier. “That extra hour a day really made me feel less rushed! I had time to play with my oldest child.” Ideally, Olivier would love to work four days a week. “We’re thinking about it, but we have to look at our budget first,” says his partner, Élise.
Some parents choose to work part-time, even if that means accepting a lower salary. Others stop working for a while to balance their family obligations. That being said, this decision can create financial insecurity, especially in the current economic climate. Plus, in the event of a separation, the lower-income parent suffers financially. Furthermore, switching to part-time employment can affect your retirement income.
In Quebec, women earn $2.77 per hour less than men on average. Given that the lower-income parent is typically the one who reduces their work hours, mothers tend to be at a disadvantage.
Once you put your career on hold for your family, it can be difficult to return to the workforce. “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their work and their family,” says Coneo. Especially since life-work balance policies also benefit companies. “It’s an asset when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff, and it increases job satisfaction,” she adds.
8. The extra challenges faced by some parents
Life-work balance presents additional challenges for single parents, immigrant parents, parents of children with special needs, and parents who work non-standard hours. Currently, most childcare facilities do not meet the needs of parents who start very early, work evenings or nights, or have irregular schedules. Jérémie and Mélissa consider themselves lucky to have a grandmother nearby to help out when Mélissa is on call during a night or evening shift, and Jérémie can’t be there.
Mélodie’s situation is different. Even though her parents help her out regularly, they live an hour away. Her husband immigrated from Réunion, and his parents still live there. “We got used to not being able to rely on others for help,” she says. “We rely on each other and share family-related tasks whenever we can.” For example, their daughter Olivia has developmental problems that require appointments with specialists. They take turns bringing her to appointments. “It helps mitigate the impact on our work,” says Mélodie. “It also means that we’re both involved in our daughter’s follow-up appointments.”
“Parents can also seek out community resources,” says Sofie Therrien, Assistant Executive Director of the Fédération québécoise des organismes communautaires Famille. With access to daycare, a collective kitchen, and a homework and tutoring service, parents can get support and relief while building relationships with other families.
Parents with unique situations should also talk to their employer about their needs. “Managers are often willing to accommodate some employees,” says Coneo. “It’s important to have the courage to talk about these things.”
Employer support is crucial when it comes to achieving life-work balance.
Parents with young children should lower their expectations, divvy up family tasks equally, and share the mental load.
Taking advantage of several work policies, such as flexible hours, telecommuting, and paid time off, tends to be most helpful.
Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September–October 2022
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Photos (in order): GettyImages/Studiostockart, Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/Sturti, Maxim Morin, Nicolas St-Germain, Adobe/Cavan images, GettyImages/PeopleImages, GettyImages/Fly View Productions