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When The Going Gets Tough, Don’t Get Going

Kerrith HarrisExecutive Coach
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You might feel as though you’re at a crossroads in your career, where choices seem limited and the options unattractive. If you feel at this crossroads, wondering if the only solution is stopping work altogether, pause first to ask yourself whether you have explored all the options.

How Did We Get Here?

If we consider traditional career paths, they are linear and often represented by a ladder. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and author of “The Start-Up of You” says that the career escalator has jammed and we need to think differently about our careers. Mainiero and Sullivan offer us an alternative kaleidoscope career model based on what generation Y want from their jobs. They describe an ongoing interplay between balancechallenge, and authenticity. Striving for balance when our caring commitments are high does not prevent us from wanting a challenge or authenticity in our roles. Still, when we can’t meet our need for either balance, challenge or authenticity, we reach a tipping point.

An added factor is the weight of the “mental load” many of us carry. The mental load is the thinking behind, rather than the doing of, domestic chores, child-care and life administration, all of which is unpaid mental labour. Many say that women carry more of the cognitive load and whilst men are taking on more chores in the home, they don’t always predict what needs doing. In her book, “Work Like a Woman”, retail expert and broadcaster Mary Portas claimed that “mental load” expands ten-fold as we become parents. This load can lead to a sense of feeling overwhelmed and “failing”.


How to Handle the Tipping Point

In my experience of coaching parents at this tipping point, I recognise how tempting it is for them to look to leave as a way of alleviating the immediate all-round pressure. I’m always keen to have them stand back and look at the long-term. After all, the time where children are perhaps a full- time job is relatively short compared to our whole working lives. Leaving is a solution in the short-term, but it’s vital to look at your life’s longer-term arc. I can cite many examples of working parents I have coached who have initially told me that they feel that they have no choice other than to resign. Instead, after talking it through objectively with me, they come up with several alternatives. Here are a few they have pursued.

Redefining Your Role

  • Influencing how success is measured, i.e., outputs vs time spent at work.
  • Renegotiating responsibilities at work and at home.
  • Finding opportunities for greater flexibility in when and where you do your role.
  • Making a lateral move.
  • Agreeing reduced travel expectations.

Keep Hold of What You Love

If you feel you need to make changes make sure you don’t cut out the things you love or are most talented at doing. If you lose these, there is a risk that you will lose motivation and your sense of fulfilment.

Ask yourself the following questions as a reminder

  • What aspects of your work help you to be at your happiest and why?
  • What makes you least happy and least motivated and why?
  • What have you built your success on so far?
  • What do others tell you are your key talents?

Take Back Control

A working parent said to me recently, “I feel like I’m not doing any of my jobs well – my day job, being a mum or running the house”.  I responded by asking them who else they knew who was holding down three full-time jobs. My advice is to regain control, take pride in being a parent, caregiver, housekeeper, and devoted employee, all rolled into one. Reset the boundaries of what is possible and review your expectations of yourself and those around you. Consider yourself a role model to the next generation who will, more than likely, be in dual-career households. Redefine what co-parenting needs to look like in your family unit and set new parameters around work.

Set yourself a timeframe. Don’t continue to be unhappy or at breaking point. Mentally fix a time in the future, say three to six months from now, by which time you will have discussed all your options and had conversations with your partner or boss, which have borne fruit. Often these adjustments can be presented as a trial period or pilot for a defined period of time. But ensure you review again in a further three months to see if there are still more adjustments to be made.

Tips on Making It Work

  1. Play to your strengths – by focusing on work or activities that play to your strengths, you’ll find that you perform better, they’ll give you energy and sometimes it doesn’t feel like work at all. This approach is the foundation of Positive Psychology theory and lends itself beautifully to managing your career successfully.
  2. Talk to your partner or support system – there might be some quick wins that would release some steam from the pressure cooker situation. Get domestic help, re-assign domestic chores, change the child-care arrangements, share the mental load, and re-assess the short and long-term financial goals. In other words, vocalise your concerns and ask for help.
  3. Talk to your boss – talk honestly about what is and what is not working for you. At this point, what have you got to lose? Ask for their advice and support; what would they do in your shoes? Tell them specifically what would make a difference today, next week and next month. Managers would much rather hear this than receive a resignation that comes seemingly unexpectedly.
  4. Parental guilt is optional! – Who knew?! What I’ve come to learn, albeit late in life, is that not every working parent feels guilty. I am learning to recognise my “guilt” as an unhelpful and energy-sapping emotion and to re-frame it with a more helpful perspective. Instead, I should be proud to show my kids what it takes to be a working parent, the difference it makes financially, talk freely about my achievements, as well as the sense of pleasure, camaraderie, and identity I derive from my work.
  5. Put down the mental load– it’s too heavy! Ask yourself what load is yours to carry? What can you delegate or, better still, put down entirely? What needs decisions today and what load or worries can be parked or shared?
  6. If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit – a wise quote from an unexpected source, the street artist Banksy. There are no prizes for being “everything to everyone”; that’s not a role model our children can reasonably aim for. Take a day off from both work and domestic stuff, muzzle the inner critic, perfection is over-rated, embrace “good is enough”.

Advice from the Wise

Take courage. The pressure that we put on ourselves to be “superhuman” is unfair. As parents, we have incredible super-powers that we rarely apply to ourselves – resilience, kindness, problem-solving, and multi-tasking. Apply your super-powers, draw upon and play to your strengths, have honest conversations with those that matter, put down some of your mental load and know that you always have a choice about what happens next.

Additional Resources:

  • 2012, Reid Hoffman. The Startup of You
  • 2006, Mainiero and Sullivan. The Opt-Out Revolt: How People are creating Kaleidoscope Careers outside of Companies
  • 2019, Mary Portas. Work Like a Woman: A Manifesto for Change
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