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Working Dads Need “Me Time,” Too

by Alyssa F. Westring and Stewart D. Friedman

Quick Takes

  • Beware of dropping everything that isn’t work or family
  • Create experiments to fold self-care into your schedule
  • Focus on rejuvenating and restoring activities
  • Accept that you may struggle at first

Mother’s Day is widely recognized as a day to acknowledge moms who all too often forsake relaxation and self-care for family, work, and community responsibilities. It’s no surprise that many Mother’s Day gifts are designed to give Mom one day to put herself first—like sleeping in, taking a break from chores and cooking, or getting a massage or pedicure, for example. Yet, few people acknowledge the fact that dads, too, are now increasingly engaged in childcare and household responsibilities, in addition to demanding jobs.

Fathers report levels of work-family conflict on par with (and, in some cases, higher than) mothers.1 In addition, fathers who give higher-than-average levels of childcare, ask for paternity leave, or interrupt their careers for family reasons are harassed more at work, receive worse performance evaluations, and get paid less than men who either don’t have kids or don’t spend much time with them. And when fathers ask for flex-time, they’re often even more penalized than mothers are for making the same request.2

We need to recognize that working fathers, like working mothers, are susceptible to the “putting everyone else first” challenge of modern working-parenthood. We’re already seeing this start to happen, and this increased visibility will hopefully lead to the systemic interventions we know work best. But in the meantime, how can individual dads start solving the problem of work-life conflict?

We set out to study working fathers of young children in our Total Leadership program—a widely recognized leadership development program that focuses on integrating four areas of life (work, home, community, and self) for improved performance in all four. The process starts with each participant diagnosing what matters most to him and engaging in dialogues with key stakeholders (spouse, boss, kids, and so on). Each participant then experiments with new ways of getting things done that serve all the different parts of their lives; they pursue “four-way wins.”

We conducted an in-depth analysis of 36 working fathers of young children (under age three) who participated in this program as part of their Wharton Executive MBA. At the beginning of the program, it was clear that these fathers were skipping sleep, exercise, healthy eating, spiritual growth, and relaxation for the sake of their work and family responsibilities. Indeed, at the start of the experiment, they rated their satisfaction with their personal well-being as an average of 4.3 on a scale from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (fully satisfied). This is in contrast to their reported satisfaction with work and with family, which were both rated significantly higher, with averages of 7.4 and 6.5, respectively. In other words, they were putting everyone else first—and themselves last.

So it wasn’t surprising that when asked to design experiments to enhance performance in all areas of their lives, the most popular type of experiment for these new dads was “rejuvenating and restoring” (as compared to, say, planning or time-shifting). R&Rs involve taking care of yourself (for example, changes in diet or physical activity, doing meditation, taking vacation, etc.) to increase capacity and performance at work, in your family, and in the community via positive spillover—indirect effects that ripple out from the self to other parts of life. In an earlier study of the nine kinds of experiments, 57% of program participants completed an R&R. However, 75% of those in our working fathers sample did so, indicating a greater need for this sort of change in their lives.3

After their conversations with key stakeholders and some intensive coaching, the fathers in our sample implemented their experiments over the course of the subsequent 12 to 15 weeks. One decided to do yoga for three hours each week, with the expectation that it would “improve my physical fitness, mental concentration at work and school, outward confidence, and show importance of exercise to my kids and other stakeholders.” Another committed to “exercise three times regularly a week because this will allow me to have more energy at home for the limited time I have for my wife and kids, providing me with the energy at work to handle stress better, be more patient, and be a much better leader . . . it will allow me to regain the health and peace of mind I so desperately need for myself.”

The goal is not for participants to implement their experiments perfectly, exactly as designed. Instead, the purpose is to gain experience with trying new ways of doing things and thereby increase one’s confidence and competence in one’s capacity to initiate change that’s truly sustainable. We were not surprised to find that many participants struggled to implement their well-being initiatives exactly as designed, given the intensive demands of their work, school, and family responsibilities.

Yet, even for those who struggled to fully follow through on attending anew to their personal needs as they had mapped out in the designs for their experiments, there was much growth and an increase in optimism. For instance, one father wrote that “this experiment and the introspection I have gained has taught me that without a healthy ‘you’ it is very difficult to excel or be your very best in other areas.” Another wrote, “Giving time to oneself is very important. In our daily lives which have become so wired and busy, we hardly do that. Exercise and diet is just one of the ways to achieve that.” Just as with working moms, several of the dads noted the importance of caring for oneself as a foundation for caring for others. One father aptly wrote, that “I heard someone refer to this as the analogy of putting on the oxygen mask before helping others, and that is how I feel.”

At the conclusion of our program, we asked participants to again rate their satisfaction with the different areas of their lives. Working fathers’ satisfaction with the “self” domain improved from 4.3 to an average of 6.5, a statistically significant increase. And these gains in the personal domain were not accomplished at the cost of reduced satisfaction in other domains. Significant increases were also observed, as satisfaction with work and family also rose, to an average of 8.4 and 8.5, respectively (see figure 2-1). On separate measures, participants also reported significant improvements in physical health and mental health, as well as a reduction in stress.

FIGURE 2–1

All of us fall into the trap of saying we can’t afford to take time for ourselves; what’s important about our study is that it shows that on the contrary, we have to take time for ourselves in order to effectively serve others. It isn’t only moms who tend to put themselves at the bottom of the list, nor is it only mothers who can benefit from more self-care. Today’s fathers need it, too.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, June 13, 2014 (product #H00UY3).

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