Juggling three roles: Why working parents with young children are especially vulnerable to surging mental distress


At one point during the first week of the stage four lockdown in Melbourne, Cherie Clonan stood calmly from her chair, walked to the bathroom and vomited.

Why? Stress. Because trying to run a business — or do any kind of paid work — while parenting kids and managing their remote learning is seriously stressful, if not impossible. It’s multiple full-time roles crammed into a limited number of hours in the day.

She’s pleaded for those who employ working parents to be as kind to them as possible. “I promise you, they are doing their absolute best in a climate that isn’t designed for the three times full-time roles of parent, teacher and employee,” she wrote on LinkedIn.

“I had a great moment there,” she later told me over the phone about being sick in the bathroom. “It was the realisation that balls have to be dropped and I need to be really kind to myself and to my team.”

Cherie — who has two primary school-aged kids now learning from home while she runs her marketing firm, The Digital Picnic — is far from alone in feeling the stress.

New research by the University of Melbourne has found those reporting high levels of mental distress across the general population has doubled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for the subgroup of parents with primary school-aged kids, it’s particularly bad.

The researchers estimate that more than one-quarter of the almost 1.5 million working parents with kids aged between five and 11 are experiencing high levels of mental distress. That’s across all of Australia, not just in Victoria. And these figures are based on research that occurred prior to Victoria’s current lockdown.

They found that employed parents with primary school-aged children are now almost four times as likely to be in high mental distress. It flips the idea of employment leading to good mental health, as these working parents fared worse than their non-working counterparts.

The authors said there are two key forms of mental distress affecting this group:

  • Financial stress (particularly brought on by unemployment and a loss of working hours); and
  • The stress caused by the conflict of trying to balance work and family.

“Even before the pandemic, parents who experienced high work-family-conflict were more likely to reduce hours, to change occupations or employers (thereby losing valuable human capital) and to give up supervisory roles since the COVID-19 crisis began,” write Dr Barbara Broadway and Dr Julie Moschion from the University of Melbourne.

A little over one-third of the workforce are parents with children under the age of 18, according to 2018 figures. It’s a sizeable chunk that — given the level of mental distress they’re up against — the researchers say will have major ramifications on overall productivity levels.

So what can help?

Additional childcare subsidies would be a huge win, particularly for low-income parents who might feel no other option financially but to pull their kids from childcare.

Employers also have a role to play — in supporting parents who are working from home to manage their remote learning and caring responsibilities. Particularly right now when different parts of the country are being impacted so differently.

The authors also suggest government-subsidised leave could aim to step in where employers do not have to financial capacity to offer the additional leave that’s needed.

As for those who are not in Victoria, there are some simple things that can be done to support those who are in lockdown. Cherie hopes to see an end to the anti-Victorian memes and jokes, and also urges people to think about the personal content they’re sharing on their social media feeds. Seeing your interstate friends at Saturday soccer and hanging out at the beach is not particularly great for your mental health when you and your own young kids are in lockdown.

Free coronavirus mental wellbeing support is available 24/7 at coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au or by calling 1800 512 348.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

NOW READ: Why the closure of Victorian childcare centres will be especially tough on working mothers

NOW READ: Australia won’t recover unless Victoria does too: Why the federal government must step up


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