Although many organisations now recognise the huge value in supporting working parents – and have dedicated a lot of time and resources to doing so – many are still failing to implement significant or lasting change.

A new report published by our team here at WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) in partnership with Hult International Business School (Ashridge) has provided us with much needed clarity on why.

‘The priority actions for boards to drive equal opportunities for working parents’ – which is the result of more than two years’ qualitative research into the experiences of working parents and people leads at UK organisations – has revealed one of the biggest issues at play – the wide-spread absence of psychological safety within today’s workplaces.

Policy is important, but psychological safety is critical

The reality is that organisational policies, support provided and attitudes towards working parents have long been flawed, making it nearly impossible for all parents to achieve a fulfilling career. And although the majority want to work, it’s no secret that mums – as the assumed primary caregiver – are usually the ones forced to sacrifice their careers in lieu of childcare.

We know that the key to ensuring all parents can continue to progress their careers is for employers to invest in considered, family friendly policies, such as equal and enhanced parental leave, structured hybrid and flexible working, and specialist support.

But no matter how robust and extensive the support and policies for working parents are, a psychologically unsafe workplace culture seems to be standing in the way of creating positive change.

People leads believe psychological safety underpins the working parent agenda

Our research showed that, on the whole, people leads across UK organisations agree psychological safety – the theory that employees can be their whole, authentic selves without fear of being judged or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes – is critical to improving the lives of working parents.

One of our research participants, Rae Avatar Barnett, leader of the people function in Europe at Laing O’Rouke, told us, “Underpinning it all [the working parents agenda] is – can you bring your whole self to work and be authentic?”.

Despite this, many believe that the lack of psychological safety in today’s workplaces is preventing both working mums and dads from speaking up, speaking out and taking up the policies on offer to them.

For example, some people leads believe the working dads in their organisations are concerned that taking parental leave will impact their career progression, largely because it is still not widely accepted as a cultural norm. When talking about enhanced parental leave, one of our research participants said, “… people can put [a policy] in place but unless the culture can move on, men won’t take it as much.”

Working mums and dads are impacted

Sadly, the concerns of people leads are reflected in the lived-experience of working parents. Let’s start by looking at the impact on dads.

Despite the majority of dads actually wanting to take on a greater caring role – 85% of men agree they should be as involved in all aspects of childcare as women, and over 90% of men believe it is equally acceptable for both women and men to take time out from employment in order to care for their family – our research suggests that feeling psychologically unsafe is making it difficult for them to take this on.

For example, some of the working dads we spoke to were concerned about the impact taking parental leave, or playing a bigger role in childcare, might have on their current role or future career prospects. One dad said, “[my perception is that] being away from work equates [to] me failing at my job… and that was the driver of [a]lot of my fear [and] anxiety…”.

In common with their male counterparts, many of the mums we interviewed were also concerned about how their parenting responsibilities would impact their career. Many said they are fearful of being judged as ‘less than’ – for example, less capable and less committed, which often results in them hiding their parental identities and responsibilities at work.

One mum told us that since becoming a parent she believes, “There’s a perception that I’ve gone from being someone who really cared and was good at work to someone who doesn’t care. And that’s really not true. I love my job.”

How to build a psychologically safe culture

This is all strong evidence to suggest that building a culture with psychological safety at its foundation will help to break down the barriers to equality within the workplace. When parents feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to use the initiatives, benefits and support mechanisms that have been put in place to support them.

Critically, the culture of any organisation, and therefore the experience of working parents, is the responsibility of organisational leaders. It is leaders that carry the weight to drive change in culture, policy and behaviour.

In light of this, we’ve shared some ways the board and organisational leaders can encourage a culture of openness and trust. Owning, implementing, and embedding these will lead to positive and significant change, both for working parents and your organisation:

Creating a culture of openness and trust

> Lead by example and role model the organisation’s espoused culture, ensuring this is visible to employees at all levels

> Share your own experiences and the difficulties you’ve faced as a working parent

> Encourage colleagues who are one level below you in the organisation to share their experience, to cascade behaviour in the organisation.

Ultimately, to create tangible progress for working parents, we must see policy underpinned by an aligned culture so all parents feel they can use support and arrangements designed for them, without detriment to their careers. Without a psychologically safe culture, policies will amount to little other than baseless headlines of support and organisations will fail to implement significant or lasting change.

Alison Green
Director at Womba | Website | + posts

Alison Green is director of organisational and coaching practice, WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby). Alison is an experienced, Masters qualified, executive coach and specialises in supporting professionals as they make the transition to becoming a working parent whilst managing their careers.