How a Parent’s Experience at Work Impacts Their Kids

by Maureen Perry-Jenkins

father carries young son on shoulders at the beach

It’s no secret that our jobs can have a major impact on our lives outside of work. Financially, mentally, and physically, our workplace experiences can offer a welcome boost — or take a significant toll. But what many employers don’t realize is that the effects of work aren’t limited to workers’ individual personal lives. To the contrary, how employees spend their time at work can have substantial spillover effects on their friends, partners, and perhaps most critically, their children.

To explore the impact of parents’ work on their children’s development, my team and I conducted a longitudinal study that followed more than 370 low-wage, working-class families over more than ten years, from pregnancy through their first several years as parents. (We intentionally focused on low-wage families, as they generally receive far less attention in the work-family literature while facing some of the greatest challenges.) We complemented in-home interviews and first-hand observations of parent-child interactions with rigorous assessments and reports from parents and teachers, and through this comprehensive analysis, we found that the children’s developmental outcomes were directly and significantly affected by their parents’ work lives.

Specifically, the data showed that parents who experienced more autonomy on the job and who had more-supportive supervisors and coworkers were in turn warmer and more engaged when interacting with their infants. And this has major, long-term implications for those infants’ development, as a vast body of research has shown that warm and responsive parenting in a child’s first year of life boosts their level of attachment with their parents as well as their emotional regulation, social skills, and academic achievement. Indeed, when we checked back in with these families years later, we consistently saw that the children of employees who had had more-positive work experiences in their first years as parents had better reading and math skills, better social skills, and fewer behavioral problems in the first grade. Importantly, all of these results held for both mothers and fathers: Any parent’s experience in the workplace had a direct and measurable impact on their kids’ development through infancy and early childhood.

For example, one father in the study — Tyson — worked for a shipping company that mandated he use a monitor that let his boss track his every move as he delivered packages. Tyson felt a complete lack of trust from his company and reported feeling highly stressed, despite being a top performer. He described how he came home from work tired and frustrated and, as a result, he explained that “I just don’t have the energy for a needy baby.” Conversely, Sonya was a home health aide whose boss empowered her to manage her time independently and asked for her input on how best to support clients. Sonya felt respected by her supervisor, and this positivity spilled over into how she parented her first-grade daughter, Kaya: When Sonya returned home from work, she was hands-on, engaged, warm, and joyful in her interactions with Kaya.

So what does this mean for employers? From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it’s clear that if work impacts employees’ children, employers have a responsibility to ensure that the impact is as positive as possible. And from a business standpoint, it’s also in companies’ best financial interests to pay attention to the effects of work on their employees’ families. After all, when workers face challenges with their partners or kids, this stress inevitably spills over into the workplace, leading to lower productivity, more sick days and personal time off, and an unhappier, less motivated workforce.

The good news is, providing working parents with the autonomy and supportive relationships that our research shows can have such a powerful, positive impact on children’s wellbeing is easier than one might expect. While many people might assume that low-wage jobs are inherently stressful, “bad” jobs, the parents we talked to described many common sense business practices that their employers had used to help both workers and their families thrive (despite the financial stress that often accompanies these low-paid jobs).

For instance, a hair stylist who participated in our study described a time when she received a phone call at work with news that her baby was sick and needed to be picked up right away. She still had three clients on her schedule for the day, but her boss simply said, “Go, of course. Go. Family comes first. We’ll figure this out.” This simple act of humanity and flexibility didn’t cost much, but it made a big difference, enabling a parent to care for her child in a moment of crisis.

In addition, beyond making accommodations or offering increased flexibility, employers can also take steps to ensure work itself is a positive experience. Another worker we talked to, Linda, was a shipment packer at a candle manufacturing plant. Her boss discovered that without prompting, she had begun inserting notes and sample candle scents in the packages she prepared for her clients. Her boss hadn’t asked her to do this, and she hadn’t gotten approval to include these extras in the packages — but her customers appreciated it so much that they began asking for Linda by name when placing their orders. In response, rather than ignoring the issue, or worse yet, punishing Linda for failing to follow standard shipping procedures, her boss asked her to train her coworkers in her unique approach to customer service, and gave her an award for innovation along with a promotion. Linda felt respected and supported, and she described how rather than being a drain, “work had become fun.” This in turn enabled Linda to come home feeling upbeat and positive (rather than exhausted and depleted), with enough energy to fully engage in parenting her infant son.

When it comes to promoting workers’ physical and mental health, organizations tend to focus on high-level policy changes such as flexible scheduling options, more paid leave, etc. And to be sure, these systemic initiatives are certainly important. But our research suggests that ensuring workers feel respected and supported in their day-to-day is often just as critical. That means teaching and empowering supervisors to support parents, finding creative ways to give workers more autonomy, and helping managers and workers alike develop their communication skills. For example, there were supervisors in my studies who were so disconnected from their employees’ lives that they weren’t even aware that some of their male workers had become parents. Healthy organizations give employees the time and space to share their experiences and ideas, whether that’s through anonymous surveys, lunchtime focus groups, or even just informal check-ins. After all, it is often employees themselves who have the best solutions to the work-family challenges they are facing — they simply need to be asked.

Ultimately, to build a truly healthy and sustainable workplace, employers must expand their definition of ROI to include returns not just for themselves or their employees, but for employees’ children, families, neighborhoods, and entire communities. How companies treat their workers today will determine how the next generation grows up tomorrow, and it’s up to all of us to invest in our shared future. That means building workplaces that value the wellbeing of working parents — and that of their kids, too.

Original article posted in the Harvard Business Review