Fewer hours. Less travel. More flexibility. Minimal stress.
The promise of having it all led Al, a father in suburban New Jersey, to leave a high-pressure career at a New York City talent management agency to work as a marketing director at a theater just a few miles from his home. Al (who asked that his last name not be used so he could speak candidly about his employers) wanted to devote more time to his son, who has special needs, and be available to visit the boy's elementary school when necessary.
But things didn't work out as expected. Al's hours grew longer and his boss began calling him on weekends. Occasional requests to leave work to deal with issues at his son's school were met with disdain.
"What was presented to me at the interview," Al says, "was very different from what the reality was at the workplace."
Sometimes the quest for work-life balance can lead parents to change jobs. Those who believe they're moving to a more family-friendly company or industry may face a rude awakening, though, when hiring managers don't keep their promises, or when personnel changes transform a once laid-back department into a high-pressure environment.
The family-friendliness of a workplace often depends on who's running it at the moment, says Samantha Ettus, a work-life balance expert and author. People commonly "leave companies for the grass-is-greener mentality of 'maybe that other company is going to afford me a better lifestyle,'" she says. "But if they're working for a boss who doesn't have any boundaries with their own personal life . . . [that boss] is certainly not going to care about protecting yours."
Rachel, a Memphis-based accountant who asked to be identified by her first name only to speak candidly, felt like no one was protecting her when she faced a dramatic increase in her workload. She had traded 60-hour-plus weeks at a public accounting firm for what was supposed to be a better quality of life at an in-house corporate tax department. For a few years, Rachel was satisfied with her move. That changed quickly, however, after several members of the department left. When their positions went unfilled, much more work was heaped onto Rachel's plate.
She still managed to get out of the office in time to pick up her young son from day care, but it meant spending hours catching up on work each night. The stress took its toll and affected her home life. "I was leaving every day from work in tears," she says. "I was on edge most of the time. My poor husband probably got my sharp tongue way more than he deserved." Exhausted and distraught, Rachel reached out to supervisors asking if she could get more support, but she says her pleas were ignored.
Companies today are often quick to tout family-friendly benefits such as parental leave and remote-work options, but the hard truth is that employers are generally under no obligation to deliver on those promises and accommodate parents struggling to balance their duties at work with their responsibilities at home.
Alexandra Harwin, a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp in New York and the co-chair of the firm's employment discrimination practice, says most laws don't require employers to accommodate family responsibilities in the same way they must accommodate other concerns, such as religious holidays.
Harwin says employment contracts that specify certain accommodations or hours can offer employees more protection, but most workers in the United States are at-will employees who don't have leverage to ask for a contract.
Still, there are steps parents can take to minimize the risk that a job switch may backfire. Start by understanding the danger of acting hastily while seeking new employment, particularly when you are burned out.
Jamie Long, a psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says feeling burned out could “make you want to be a bit more impulsive or quick to make a decision.” But, Long adds, once you’re aware of your emotions, you “can consciously choose better behaviors.”
Those include slowing down and doing your research. As with any job search, networking helps. "If someone is thinking about working somewhere, it's a good thing to look at their professional networks, see if they know anyone who works there, and get a feel for whether it would be a place that would be supportive of the work-life balance that they're trying to achieve," says Harwin.
You can browse "best places to work" rankings and company review sites, but keep in mind that they don't always present a full or accurate picture of an employer. "Any information that someone can consider is better than no information," Harwin says, "but those rankings and reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt because they're not always reliable."
If you're interviewing with a company, take note of how many people are asking you questions. If it's more than three, Ettus warns, that may indicate the company is a bureaucracy that is vulnerable to groupthink.
It's prudent to wait until you've received an actual offer before inquiring about family-friendly policies, Ettus says. And even with an offer in hand, be discreet.
"It's totally fine to say that you'd love to talk to a couple of people that have worked in the company before, or you'd love to talk to some colleagues, and you can say things that are not direct," Ettus says. "You can say things like, 'Give me a sense of your day. Is the office a high-stress office, or what's the culture like?'" If you learn that leaders in a company are known for placing little value on their personal lives, that may indicate that they won't place much on yours, either.
There's also research you can do without saying a word. When visiting your prospective employer's office, keep your eyes peeled for game areas and gyms. Those perks are "code for 'You can also hang out here. You don't ever have to leave,'" Ettus says. "I always say, if a working parent sees a ping-pong table at an office, they should run the other direction."
Perusing policies in a company's employee handbook can also prove illuminating. Harwin notes that her law firm allows attorneys to work from home one day a week. "The policies that are already on the books that may provide for some flexibility are a helpful indication as to whether this is a workplace with the kind of culture that you want to be a part of," she says. "It may be a red flag if an employer is not willing to provide you with information on what their basic policies are before you come on board."
Finally, remember to request that the family-friendly accommodations specifically promised to you be included in your offer letter. "What an offer letter does is set mutual expectations for a position," says Harwin.
"Often when a dispute arises between an employee and an employer, there's some revisionist history on the part of the employer" she adds. "Having an offer letter provides a clear record about what the requirements of the position are and what the requirements of the position are not."
And if you have made a job switch and find yourself regretting it, don't head for the exit immediately. Ettus recommends approaching your boss with your concerns and working together to address them. Good managers, she says, "are not going to want to lose you if you're a solid worker, so they're going to want to find a solution with you."
Of course, not all managers are willing to help, as Rachel, the Memphis accountant, learned when she sought support. In these circumstances, employees may decide that they have no choice but to start looking for new work. If you find yourself in such a situation, don't beat yourself up. Long advises working parents to forgive themselves and let go of thoughts like, "I should have seen this coming," or, "If I was smarter, this wouldn't have happened." Instead, apply what you've learned to your next job search.
Both Rachel and Al, the theater marketing director, eventually moved on to jobs that better met their needs.
“When you are working with people you enjoy, and who really care about you and your development,” Rachel says, “that just makes all the difference in the world.”