Moms are stressed. It’s the end of the school year, or the start of summer, or the ever-revolving task lists—take your pick. Unstructured seasons of transition are hard, especially for employed moms whose stress levels are high.

At this time of year—or let’s be honest, every time of year in America—it feels like society expects mothers to achieve the Olympic precision of Simone Biles when it comes to being a mother and an employee. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a world-class gymnast, and I certainly can’t parent and work with the precision of one. 

The result of these unattainable expectations is immense stress, which makes us sick and further inhibits our ability to perform well. These harms are detailed in the infographic below. 

Such precision might be possible if we had the “villages” within which our ancestors raised families. But as many writers before me have noted, we don’t have them. 

Don’t worry; I’m not going to make a plea that we should. Instead, from a different angle, I’ll propose that what we need is a margin of error. 

This phrase is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a permissible or tolerable degree of deviation from a correct or exact value or target.” If you are a parent in America, or if you know one, you know that you (or they) need this margin. 

Most working parents have scripted the workweek down to the half-hour or 15-minute increments, depending on the children, activities, and workplace complexity they juggle. In this environment, there isn’t room for error. But life happens. People get sick. Trains break down. Project plans change. A client needs a different deliverable, or shift assignments weren’t as expected. In short, things often don’t go according to plan. 

In our society, the standard deviation for workers who are also parents is zero

Let’s take this week as an example (in my admittedly privileged life). It’s my daughter’s last week of preschool, so each day has come with a special requirement for parental participation in end-of-school activities, early dismissals, and a Friday closure. Yesterday, our in-home child care for her younger brother wasn’t available due to an illness in our caregiver’s family.

Yes, this is a privilege. Yes, I am grateful. But when there is no margin of error, the 7 AM cancellation from our usual caregiver sends me into a stressful furry. And I’m not alone.

I immediately texted two reliable babysitters, which it seems are diminishing in our society, but they weren’t available last-minute. So, my husband and I worked like it was 2020 (which doesn’t have the same ring to it as partying like it was 1999), and we traded off my son between meetings. I did school pick up for my daughter, my son’s nap time, and then I jumped on a call. We fed ourselves and the children, got them to sleep, and both worked late into the evening to make up for the lost time. 

Where’s the margin when life’s circumstances make hitting the targets in life and at work impossible? My husband and I are both employed, usually have access to child care, and I have an understanding employer. But that’s not the case for millions of Americans. 

My experience is a walk in the park compared to that of restaurant and health care workers, who struggle with child care at extremely high rates. Health care workers reporting high child care stress were 80% more likely to report burnout, and were more likely to reduce their hours or leave their jobs. Mothers in these industries are hit especially hard. Approximately 1 million of the 3.5 million parents working in the restaurant business are single mothers, and 76% of all health care workers are women (though not all are mothers). The hours and shifts associated with restaurant and health care employment are among the most misaligned to traditional child care or school hours. This creates immense stress for parents working in these industries when everything goes according to plan, and even more so on the days when things don’t.

So, how can we get ourselves out of this unsustainable situation? 

Employer policies impact parental stress

Let’s look at a few workplace policies highlighting the lack of margin for error. First, almost one in four Americans have no paid sick days. For those that do, 40 hours seems to be the norm. If you’ve ever had a small child in congregate care or preschool, you know they are sick well more than five days per year. Plus, this doesn’t account for the number of days you are sick when they share their latest illness with you. 

Most sick day policies seem like “caregiving theater”. It’s like innovation theater but for caregivers. As any parent of small children can tell you, it’s not enough to support their children’s health – much less their own – or their ability to work effectively.

I share this example not to suggest that universal or more sick days are the solution. They aren’t. But they are emblematic of the fact that we need a cultural shift in the US: one that prioritizes parenting the way it prioritizes employment. 

Employers can lead the cultural change necessary to alleviate stress and improve health

Our health and economic situations don’t have to be this bad. The Tools of Cooperation framework offers a pathway to establish an alternative. When we’re in a situation with agreement on the goal (i.e., reduce parental stress), but don’t have clarity on how to do it, leaders can use role modeling, visioning, and other Leadership Tools to lead effective change. 

In our research report released last fall, I shared how forward-thinking organizations have a variety of tools at their disposal to reduce stress and improve maternal health, plus that of their dependents, and that they could do so while enhancing their bottom lines.

One of these levers is to reduce the workweek from 40 hours to 30 or 32 without reducing pay. I don’t suggest limiting the workweek to four days unless daycare and school schedules will also shift to four days, as this doesn’t alleviate the mismatch between work and school schedules that creates a $55 billion economic loss each year and many of the stressors mentioned earlier. 

As I’ve discussed this strategy with leaders over the past few months, I often hear that men will keep working longer hours, and it will still be hard for women to get ahead. I can’t disagree with this argument. But maybe that’s because most mothers I talk to aren’t trying to “get ahead.” They’re trying to keep their heads above water in a zero-margin society. And at the end of the day, if the bar for what’s expected is 32 hours instead of 40 (after all, studies show productivity increases with fewer work hours), it’s a little closer to attainable for those juggling both parenting and employment. 

Something has to change. Most of us aren’t Olympic athletes. Let’s stop expecting that parents, and especially mothers, can achieve society’s untenable expectations of excellence across multiple full-time jobs. We need a margin of error. A norm around fewer work hours might just give it to us. 


  • Ann Somers Hogg
    Ann Somers Hogg

    Ann Somers Hogg is the director of health care at the Christensen Institute. She focuses on business model innovation and disruption in health care, including how to transform a sick care system to one that values and incentivizes total health.