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The hidden benefits of self-care for working parents

Many parents feel guilty taking time for themselves, but it makes them better caregivers—and can help their careers, too. 

The hidden benefits of self-care for working parents
[Photo: Drazen Zigic/iStock]
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Working parents often put their own needs last. When they finally do make time for themselves, they may receive criticism for being selfish and judge themselves by feeling guilty, ultimately choosing to give up on self-care.  

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A recent study revealed that almost 75% of all parents wish they spent more time taking care of themselves, and a third of them admit feeling guilty when they prioritize self-care. Also, over half of Americans feel burnt out with daily responsibilities. So it’s no wonder working parents feel like they’ll never meet the overwhelming requirements for success in family and work nor escape the nagging sense of guilt that comes with prioritizing one over the other.  

As an executive coach to senior leaders, many of whom are parents, and as a working parent with a newborn myself, here are four reasons that caring for yourself without guilt is necessary for success in your personal and professional life: 

 1. Caring for yourself positions you as a leader, not a follower

Many parents postpone essential self-care needs, like getting enough sleep, exercising, meeting friends, or just spending time alone to recharge to prioritize caring for others. At work, however, that can send a dangerous message about your leadership ability. It implies that you are unwilling to let go of doing everything for everybody else and unable to act strategically amidst a sea of demands. 

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That was the case for a client of mine, a director of marketing at a Fortune 50 company. Given his singular focus on earning a promotion to VP, he never made time for his family outside of work. Coming into the office earlier and staying later than his colleagues initially endeared him to senior leaders for his constant availability. But his unwillingness to say no to countless requests resulted in more work for his frustrated direct reports, many of whom were also working parents. 

He thought his decision to put his company’s needs before his family and himself would guarantee advancement, but unfortunately, his strategy backfired. Despite senior executives liking him personally, they decided not to promote him to a higher leadership role. He had developed a reputation as a “doer,” not a strategic leader, failing to get out of the weeds and empower his team around a shared, consistent agenda.  

It may be a shock for your family or your colleagues when you intentionally decide to make time for yourself at the expense of other activities. But in doing so, you are showing leadership and the ability to prioritize essential, high-impact activities. 

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 2. Self-care enables creativity to solve life’s challenges

According to a recent survey, 78% of working parents experience real career tradeoffs, so it’s not surprising that most are stuck believing it’s impossible to have it all across work and family. But taking time for yourself helps you tap into creativity and fresh thinking to disrupt the way you view obstacles and reframe them to arrive at better solutions.  

In their book, Parents Who Lead, authors Stewart Friedman and Alyssa Westring help working parents challenge the limiting belief that success in one domain of your life always requires sacrifice in another. By integrating attention to self-care with work, family, and community, (what they call a “four-way view”), you can not only manage but ultimately thrive.  

For example, let’s say you love running in nature and finally commit to fitting in a run during the workday because you want to get healthier and reduce stress. In the past, you wouldn’t dare clear your schedule of team meetings for an hour or so, and if you did, you felt guilty for not using that time to get ahead of family-related tasks. 

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But this time, you decide to take a broader, interconnected view to find potential benefits of self-care across the other aspects of your life. With a fresh perspective, you remind yourself that getting away for a run will help you clear your mind for strategic thinking on work issues. You will also give your team some much-needed space and show them you trust that they can excel in your absence.  

Furthermore, you realize that a daily run will make you less prone to anger at home, and your children will have more fun with you. Not to mention, you will set an example for them to keep healthy and set boundaries in their life. And research shows that mothers who can exercise authority and discretion at work rather than cede control over what happens to them have mentally healthier children. 

Finally, you recognize that taking that time for your fitness will keep you feeling energetic and give you more motivation to get involved in your community, like engaging in volunteer activities or expanding your network.  

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Working parents who experimented with taking this “four-way view” found that self-care fostered creative ways to harmonize all the aspects of their life, not sacrifice one for the other. As a result, they experienced significant increases in satisfaction in their careers (17%), family lives (31%), and personal well-being (54%).  

 3. Caring too much for others can hurt them  

Serving others at the expense of yourself might seem like the ultimate act of selflessness. But it’s possible to over-leverage this behavior to the point that helping people causes unintentional damage.  

Jane, a successful corporate leader I coached, was drowning in a to-do list of things to prepare for her children’s daily activities while managing the complexities of her job. When her husband would encourage her to delegate more to their nanny or consider reducing some of their events, she would defensively respond, “You can’t outsource these things! My children need me to be there. I didn’t have them so that someone else could raise them.”  

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Jane’s dedication to being a present parent was admirable, but it also led to a tense household, not just with her husband but with her children whom she would often yell at when the stress became too much. She eventually realized that by not pulling back on a few obligations and allowing others to help her, she made things worse by pushing her loved ones away with conflict rather than pulling them closer. 

 4. Caring for yourself is essential to your professional brand

Self-care may seem like the first thing to sacrifice as a working parent, but ignoring it can damage your career potential. Many working parents, particularly those with infants and toddlers, are so overwhelmed with managing daily needs at home that they may stop being aware of how they come across in the office. 

One of my coaching clients recognized that in the years after his first son arrived, he stopped paying attention to his general appearance because he was always running late and suffered many sleepless nights. He looked disheveled and tired and didn’t carry himself with the executive presence he used to have.  

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Through the safe space of coaching, we were able to discuss his style’s impact on perceptions of him at work. And with just a little upgrading of his wardrobe and shifting some habits around his body language, he could get back on track with career success while navigating the pressures of parenting at home.  

 It’s no secret that today’s working parents are more stressed than ever, with one recent study showing they get only 32 minutes of free time to themselves per day, even skipping an average of 227 meals a year due to hectic schedules. Under this stress, you still try to make everyone happy, from your family to your colleagues and may struggle with guilt when you finally take time out for yourself. But it’s worth remembering why looking after yourself first is necessary, not only to help others but to optimize your life, career, and the time you spend with your family. 


Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to the C-suite and leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, 3M, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies and more. You can access his tip sheet on delivering tension-free feedback to your team and receive his monthly newsletter. 

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