Back to School, Back to Stress

Working parents start new academic year struggling with work/life balance

By Dana Wilkie Sep 15, 2015
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The No. 2 pencils, sharpened just so. The TI-84 calculator for geometry, at $140 a pop. The insistent PTA president, shoving that volunteer sheet under your nose. The kid who gets sick, on the morning of your budget presentation. 

Welcome back to school? For many working parents, the back-to-school season is hardly welcome.

In fact, more than half of working parents find that the start of the school year interferes with their jobs. Additionally, 1 in 4 believe that, throughout the year, supervisors don’t empathize with school obligations that can make them late to work, require they leave early or keep them from work altogether, according to a recent survey on, which provides online resources for managing work/life balance. 

“Making lunches, getting kids ready for school in the morning, making sure they have after-school care, parent-teacher meetings, the nurse sending your child home midday—for those juggling work deadlines and these school-related situations, this can be incredibly stressful,” said Donna Levin, co-founder and vice president of Workplace Solutions, a business unit of that designs family care benefits for companies’ employees. 

There’s also an emotional toll, she said. 

“Kids worry and stress about their new school year, new class, new friends and homework, which in turn affects the parents.” 

Forgot to Make That School Lunch?

The study by collected responses from about 575 people in the United States during July 2015. While the questions were phrased using the term “back to school,” the multiple-choice answers referred to activities that happen throughout the school year, such as helping with homework, packing (or forgetting to pack) lunches, getting calls from school nurses, and finding time for school functions. 

Forty-four percent of respondents said they frequently or often feel distracted at work during the school season. The top five stressors included back-to-school shopping (37 percent), simultaneously juggling work and school responsibilities (37 percent), getting kids ready for school in the morning (34 percent), finding after-school child care (31 percent), and dealing with plans falling through (22 percent)—such as carpools not working out, children getting sick or homework that requires more help from a parent than expected. 

“You have to prep for a field trip, or go to a parent-teacher meeting, or your kid got in trouble and you have to pick them up,” said Ken Matos, senior director of research for the Families and Work Institute (FWI). “It’s especially stressful when children are younger, because you must get the right pencils and notebooks and uniforms.” 

Forty-four percent also said they worry their boss and colleagues will think they’re not committed to their job when their work schedule is upset by a school responsibility. One in 4 working parents said their employer is unsympathetic when they’re not at work because of their child—for instance, because a nanny shows up late, or they must attend a teacher conference or school function. 

The 2014 National Study of Employers by the FWI and the Society for Human Resource Management indicates there is some basis for that worry. The study noted that between 2008 and 2014, fewer employers reported that they encourage supervisors to assess employee performance by what they accomplish and not just by “face time” (71 percent in 2008 and 64 percent in 2014) 

But absence from the office shouldn’t lead managers to think that working parents are being slackers. Often, Matos said, these employees make up the time by working at night or on weekends. 

“Sometimes managers get wrapped up in a sense of control, and it’s not about work being done,” Matos said. “If the work is getting done and [managers ask], ‘Why are they never here?’ then why do [managers] care” if the employee is in the office?

Matos acknowledged that some companies may preach about work/life balance, but still have supervisors and childless employees who resent the worker who leaves at 4 p.m. to attend his son’s school play.

“Managers can hold parents accountable by saying, ‘For anything predictable, you need to tell us in advance so we can coordinate with everyone else,’ and then a lot of that resentment falls away,” he said. “And if I’m a childless employee, I need to know when something happens to me, you will do your best to cover for me, too.”

Levin agrees. 

“The important factor is that managers and colleagues are empathetic and understanding of lives beyond the office walls,” she said. “It’s in a company’s best interest to value employees’ lives outside of work, especially if they want to retain the best talent.”

Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco, noted that “many children have special needs or disabilities, and … parents may have to provide teachers or aides with special instructions on how to administer insulin [or] help include a child with autism. They may have to leave work suddenly, if school personnel need their assistance.”

In California, the Family-School Partnership Act forbids employers from taking adverse action against a parent or guardian who takes time from work to help in a child’s classroom or to deal with child care program activities. The law covers all employers with 25 or more workers. Employees can’t take more than 40 hours per year, and the time is unpaid. The California legislature is also considering a law that would provide job protections for parents who must tend to child care and school emergencies, or when parents visit schools to decide where to enroll their child.

School-Year Empathy May Depend on Industry

There are industries where a lack of empathy for a working parent’s school obligations is more pronounced than in others, particularly in highly skilled, highly paid professional service industries like law, finance, consulting and accounting.

“They are working in a culture where working at being [both] a successful parent and a successful employee is sort of new, and many of their peers and supervisors have taken a single-track approach to life,” Matos said. “This happens in a lot of billable-hours cultures that focus on how much you work, like law and finance, or in professions that are very male-dominated, like the military.” 

In fact, a study of a global consulting firm by Harvard Business School, Boston University and Florida State University professors found that men at the firm who had children felt they had to pretend they were working at home after hours instead of tending to their kids’ activities. 

One way to help managers become more sympathetic to working parents, especially during school season, is to reward them for making work/life balance happen for their employees, Matos said. 

“The boss is saying ‘Make flexibility work,’ and the employee says, ‘I really need this flexibility,’ but when the manager makes it work, it isn’t always noted on the manager’s performance review,” he said. “No thank you or reward, just the organization asking you, ‘Did you make your numbers?’ ”

In fact, the National Study of Employers found that fewer companies are rewarding those who support effective, flexible work arrangements (20 percent in 2008, down to 11 percent in 2014). 

“If an organization says one thing but rewards something else, employees will match their behavior with the values an organization rewards rather than what organizational leaders say are important,” the report authors wrote. 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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