Many employers are more aware of the ways in which employees’ experiences at work affect their lives outside of work. But what about the lives of their children? Through a longitudinal study that followed more than 370 low-wage, working-class families for more than ten years, the author found that children’s developmental outcomes were directly and significantly affected by jobs. their parents. In particular, workers with more autonomy and more supportive supervisors and co-workers were in turn more warm and engaged when interacting with their infants. These children grew up with better reading and math skills, better social skills, and fewer behavior problems in first grade, suggesting that an employee’s workplace experiences in- immediately before and during the transition to parenthood can have a lasting impact on their children’s development. In light of these findings, the author argues that ensuring employees feel respected and supported is not only an investment in today’s workforce – it’s an investment in the next generation as well.
It’s no secret that our jobs can have a big impact on our lives outside of work. Financially, mentally, and physically, our experiences at work can provide a positive boost — or add significant damage. But what many employers don’t realize is that the effects of work are not limited to individual workers’ personal lives. Conversely, how employees spend their time at work can have a significant spillover effect on their friends, colleagues, and perhaps most critically, their children.
To find out the impact of parents’ work on their children’s development, my team and I conducted a longitudinal study which followed more than 370 low-wage, working-class families for more than ten years, from pregnancy through their first few years as parents. (We deliberately focused on low-wage families, as they often receive little attention in the work-family literature as they face some of the biggest challenges.) We added interviews within home and observations of parents and children along with rigorous interviews. assessments and reports from parents and teachers, and through this comprehensive analysis, we found that children’s developmental outcomes are directly and significantly affected by their parents’ work lives.
Specifically, the data showed that parents who experienced more autonomy at work and had more supportive supervisors and co-workers were in turn more warm and engaged when interacting with their infants. And this has major, long-term implications for the development of infants, such a big one body of research shows that warm and responsive parenting in the first year of a child’s life improves their level of attachment to their parents as well as their emotional regulation, social skills, and academic achievement. In fact, when we returned to those families years later, we often found that the children of employees who had more positive work experiences in their early years as parents had better skills in reading and math, better social skills, and fewer behavioral problems. in the first grade. Importantly, all of these results hold for mothers and fathers: Any parent’s experience at work has a direct and measurable impact on their children’s development through infancy and early childhood.
For example, one father in the study – Tyson – worked for a delivery company that mandated he use a monitor that allowed his boss to track his every move as he delivered packages. Tyson felt a complete lack of trust from his company and reportedly felt overwhelmed, despite being a top performer. He described how he came home from work tired and frustrated and, as a result, explained that “I just don’t have the energy for a needy child.” In contrast, Sonya is a home health aide whose employer empowers her to manage her time independently and asks for her input on how to best support clients. Sonya felt respected by her supervisor, and this positivity spilled over into how she parented her first-grade daughter, Kaya: When Sonya came home from work, she was hands-on, engaged, warm, and happy in his company with Kaya.
So what does this mean for employers? From the standpoint of corporate social responsibility, it is clear that if work affects employees’ children, employers have a responsibility to ensure that the impact is as positive as possible. And from a business standpoint, it is also in the best financial interest of companies to pay attention to the effects of work on the family of their employees. After all, when workers face challenges with their colleagues or children, this stress inevitably spills over into the workplace, leading to reduced productivity, more sick days and personal time, and an unhappy, less motivated workforce.
The good news is, giving working parents the autonomy and supportive relationships that our research shows can have such a powerful, positive impact on children’s well-being is much easier than one might think. can be expected. While many people may think that low-wage jobs are inherently stressful, “bad” jobs, the parents we spoke to described many common-sense business practices employed by their employers. to help workers and their families thrive (despite the financial stress that often accompanies these low-paying jobs).
For example, a hair stylist who participated in our study described a time when she received a phone call at work with the news that her child was sick and had to be picked up immediately. He still had three clients on his schedule that day, but his boss simply said, “Go, of course. Go away. Family comes first. Let’s talk about it.” This simple act of humanity and flexibility doesn’t cost much, but it makes a big difference, enabling a parent to care for their child in a time of crisis.
Additionally, beyond making accommodations or offering more flexibility, employers can also take steps to ensure that 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 began inserting notes and sampling candle fragrances into the packages she prepared for her clients. Her boss didn’t ask her to do it, and she hasn’t gotten permission to include these extras in the packages – but her customers appreciate it so much that they start asking for Linda’s name when placing their orders. In response, rather than ignore the issue, or worse, punish Linda for failing to follow standard shipping procedures, her boss asks her to train her coworkers in her unique method. in customer service, and he was given an award for innovation along with a promotion. . Linda felt respected and supported, and she described that instead of being a chore, “work became fun.” This in turn enabled Linda to return home feeling happy and positive (instead of tired and drained), with enough energy to fully engage in parenting her infant son.
When it comes to improving the physical and mental health of workers, organizations tend to focus on high-level policy changes such as scheduling options, more paid leave, and more. But our research suggests that making sure 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 improve their communication skills. For example, there were supervisors in my study who were so disconnected from their employees’ lives that they didn’t know that some of their male workers had become parents. Healthy organizations give employees time and space to share their experiences and ideas, whether through anonymous surveys, lunch focus groups, or even informal check-ins. In fact, employees themselves often have the best solutions to the work-family challenges they face – they just have to be asked.
Finally, 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 those children, families, neighborhoods, and the entire community of employees. How companies treat their workforce today will determine how the next generation grows tomorrow, and it’s up to everyone to invest in our shared future. That means building workplaces that value the well-being of working parents — and their children, too.