Our experiences of work impact how we show up in life more broadly. We spend so much time and mental energy at work that how we’re treated there can negatively or positively affect how we are as parents, friends, and community members.
Researchers sometimes call this the “spillover effect,” and it’s a key to shifting “stakeholder capitalism” from abstract, public relations buzzwords to a more useful, practical framework. Giving people a living wage and respect at work is urgent in part because that advances us toward a healthy, active, democratic society.
In her book Work Matters, due out on Tuesday, Maureen Perry-Jenkins convincingly draws a direct line between how low-income parents are treated at work and how they perform as parents. The original research conducted over 20 years by Perry-Jenkins, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has important implications for policy and workplace practices.
“The experiences that occur on the factory floor, in the nursing home, or on food service lines—day in and day out for most of one’s adult life—affect workers’ mental health, physical health, stress and energy. These experiences also affect workers’ abilities to be engaged and sensitive parents,” she writes. (p. 155)
Perry-Jenkins and her colleagues studied expecting parents in low-income jobs who planned to return to work full-time after their child’s birth, following them for the first year postpartum and then interviewing them again when their child entered first grade around age six. The median household income of the 360 families who participated was $43,607.
The author and her team found that “workplace policies and conditions are most likely to affect children through their parents’ wellbeing.” (p. 41) A widespread lack of paid parental leave and inability to schedule their work around family needs—such as an unanticipated sickness—made mothers’ mental health worse. In the most acute such cases, their children by first grade showed delayed socioemotional and cognitive development.
Perry-Jenkins tried to determine what made one low-wage job better than another at positively impacting the mental health and parenting of employees. The clear conclusion from her work is that individual supervisors hold enormous sway over a working parent’s experience, their mental health, and ultimately their children’s success.
In addition, Perry-Jenkins found that workers who have more autonomy—control over how they do their jobs, variety in what they do, and the sense that their work is contributing to a common goal—are less likely to use harsh and overreactive parenting styles. “When work promotes autonomy and self-direction,” she writes, “mothers are better parents, which bodes well for children’s development.” (p. 138.) The same finding held true for fathers as well.
Conversely, one father who her team followed said that he felt disrespected and stressed in his job as a short-order cook at a busy breakfast restaurant. “My boss treats me like a two-year old,” he said. He acknowledged that he came home and sometimes “lost it” with his kids because “it all just gets to you sometimes.” (p. 137)
Perry-Jenkins recommends policy changes to reduce negative spillovers from work:
- A minimum of 12 weeks paid leave for all new parents. She found that relatively few low-income workers were eligible for even unpaid leave, and those who were couldn’t always take it for financial reasons. Paid leave isn’t mandated in most states. Research shows that longer leaves result in better outcomes for families.
- Sick leave separate from personal time off (PTO). PTO often requires advance notice and can be refused by the employer. Parents can’t plan ahead for when their child or child-care provider is sick.
- Worker voice in developing family-friendly approaches. Making it easier for labor to organize increases the chances that employees have a say in developing better ways of structuring work.
- Addressing problems related to mandatory overtime. US employers can force employees to work overtime, which creates issues for parents who need to get home to their children. One better approach is to require advance notice for mandatory extra hours so families can more easily plan for them.
Her research also suggests measures employers can take:
- Allowing for greater scheduling flexibility. A policy of even minimal scheduling flexibility had a positive impact on mothers’ mental health, even if they did not actually use it. “Simply knowing one can leave, if necessary, may make work less stressful and contribute to better morale and health,” Perry-Jenkins writes. (p. 63)
- Giving workers greater autonomy at work. One simple tactic is to solicit ideas from employees on how to improve work conditions and pilot their ideas. When workers feel valued, respected, and engaged on the job, that positively spills over into how they show up in their families and communities. “Stressful, fast-paced work environments are not necessarily bad for working parents, so long as they are coupled with supportive supervisors and job satisfaction,” she concludes. (p. 128)
- Training supervisors to better support employees. Workers with more supportive supervisors are more likely to have children who thrive. “As working parents told us, when supervisors include them in decision making, respect their ideas, give them some say in how they perform their work, acknowledge them as parents, and accommodate the unforeseen demands of parenting, workers feel better about their jobs,” Perry-Jenkins writes. “Implicit in this model, however, is that supervisors need to be empowered to create change, often a hard job for middle managers.” (p. 168)
- Providing workplace mentors. Work Matters documents instances where inexperienced young parents didn’t have adequate strategies for dealing with their work and supervisors. In some cases, for example, when a child was sick, they chose to skip work without any notice rather than deal with their bosses. More experienced worker mentors could coach new parents on how to navigate unforeseen challenges without risking their jobs.
To be sure:
- The book doesn’t really address hybrid and remote work, where the division between work and personal life is frequently nonexistent and the potential for spillover may be even greater.
- The research also predates the surge in low-income worker empowerment and wage increases over the past two years and the latest child-care crisis that has led many women to exit the workforce.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Researchers found that mothers who experienced criticism from their supervisors at work pulled back from parenting activities, while supervisor recognition was linked to warmer parenting behavior.
- Infant care consumes an average of six to eight hours of parents’ time each day on average, the equivalent of a second full-time job.
- “Supervisors intervene, promotions happen, coworkers help out, workers are fired, and schedules change. These experiences are then carried home, where they affect workers’ wellbeing, relationships, and children, for better or worse.” (p. 17)
- “Work spills over into family life in numerous ways: by sapping one’s energy, influencing one’s mood, and limiting one’s time.” (p. 101)
- “As we transform workplaces to be places where all workers can be engaged and productive, autonomous, and respected, not only do we enhance the health and wellbeing of workers and build stronger and more productive organizations—we build a society where the next generation can flourish.” (p. 174)
The bottom line is that Work Matters is a book about specific academic research whose details about child development are not essential for everyone. But the clear support and urgency that it brings to efforts by all of us to make workplaces more fair and dynamic are vital.
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