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At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, John James Parker, M.D., was working overtime as a medical resident treating coronavirus patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, while raising a toddler and a 6-month-old. Then, a few months later, he started his research fellowship, and was able to work from home a few days a week. Like many parents, Parker found that telework was not as comfortable as the optional sweatpants suggest. Compared to working in a hospital during a public health crisis, working from home was just as stressful, albeit in different ways.

For one, the sounds of his children crying and playing were more distracting than any noise he’d encountered before. Even when his spouse had the kids covered, Parker says the experience was like working in an office with an open floor plan, except his loud colleagues were the people he loves the most. “I want to know what’s going on, and it completely takes me out of what I’m doing,” he says.

At the same time, Parker was brainstorming research questions to study as a part of his fellowship and wondered if other dads felt the same way as he did about working from home. “My interest is parents, especially fathers as a key population whose health and well-being has huge implications for their parenting and children,” he says.

The Stress of Working From Home

Up until the pandemic, studies that focused on parenting and working from home primarily focused on mothers, who have been found to take on a disproportionate amount of family responsibilities. To expand on past research, Parker and his team surveyed 1,060 parents (62.5% of whom teleworked and 47.5% of whom were fathers), about their parenting stress and work stress during lockdown.

“The change for fathers was more dramatic than it was for mothers, and that resulted in more parenting stress.”

Results indicated that dads who worked from home were twice as likely to report that parenting was stressful compared to dads who worked on site. Moms only reported slightly more stress when they worked from home compared to on site, and the difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Interestingly, Parker and his colleagues did not compare the stress levels of fathers and mothers directly, so, he says, “we can’t state that mothers were more or less stressed than fathers.” The reason the researchers neglected this comparison was because they were looking at stress as an extension of health — and the link between health and telework. Since men and women tend to perceive their health differently (for instance, women tend to report worse health than men, but live longer), “comparing men and women’s self-reported health may not be the most accurate health measure.”

Parker suspects the difference between men who work from home and men who work on site reflects the gendered expectations of employers (and society overall) — mainly, the notion that men should prioritize work over family. When men want to take a more active role in parenting than they did in generations past, like many fathers do, finding a new balance (and justifying it to your employer) is understandably stressful.

That’s not to say that moms don’t have a difficult time managing parenting responsibilities while holding full-time careers. The difference is that moms had more practice juggling work and family prior to the pandemic, Parker suspects. They had more experience telling their bosses they’ll get to a task later, or dealing with their kids interrupting meetings. So even though their parenting responsibilities increased with closed schools and daycares, being more seasoned could potentially explain why there wasn’t the same stress gap between mothers who worked from home and those who worked on site. A lot of newly teleworking dads, however, had yet to get their reps in.

“The change for fathers was more dramatic than it was for mothers, and that resulted in more parenting stress,” says Parker, who is now an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

What Can Be Done To Help Dads Thrive

The findings echo a 2013 study that shows women are generally better multitaskers than men. Although the current study didn’t look at multitasking specifically, Parker acknowledges that this could have played a role in men feeling way more stressed out when working from home. Still, the authors of the multitasking study similarly noted that such disparities could be explained by societal expectations rather than innate biological differences between men and women.

More research needs to be done to figure out what Parker’s findings mean for fatherhood in a post-pandemic world. The data was gathered during a novel time for parenting, but Parker says the study nonetheless has broader implications for family leave policies, as well as work-life balance long after lockdown.

“[Dads] are stressed about being home with their kids because they are not aloof or indifferent to their kids being around.”

For instance, dads in the U.S. take only about a week of paternity leave on average, despite some companies offering more time and a growing number of states (13, plus the District of Columbia) passing paid family leave policies. To Parker, a lot of these new fathers are like the men in his study. Dads want to take a more active role in raising their children, but when employers and society demand they put breadwinning first, “the whole family suffers,” Parker says.

In the end, employers need to be more flexible when it comes to fatherhood, he says, without making men feel like their jobs are endangered. Some concrete ways to do this, the researchers note, is for companies to offer more scheduling autonomy, hybrid work options, and Employee Assistance Programs for managing family stress.

Other practical takeaways for dads specifically are to talk more openly with their families about their feelings — a type of emotional disclosure that some men associate with showing weakness, but is essential for figuring out what works best for an individual household.

For instance, by troubleshooting with his wife, Parker figured out that noise-canceling headphones, a white noise machine, and a mutual understanding that mornings are when he’s typically honed in on work (whereas in the afternoons he’s more available to help), has benefited his work-life balance.

“To me, all of this shows that fathers care,” Parker adds. “In many ways, the strain working-from-home dads are feeling is a symptom of a positive change. They’re stressed about being home with their kids because they are not aloof or indifferent to their kids being around.”