The Working Parent – This CEO’s Specialist Subject

Karitane provides parenting support and education to mums, dads and families during the early years of parenting for children aged 0-5 years. We caught up with their CEO Grainne O’Loughlin as we sought her experienced insights into some working parent issues. (you can find out more about Karitane at the bottom of this article or by visiting

Grainne, what are you coming across as the biggest challenges facing our working parents?

Parenting can be really hard, exhausting, frustrating and at the same time be one of the most rewarding things you may ever do! We find these are the main challenges for working parents:

Social Isolation: Often, we live some distance from our closest families and friends so new parents can easily find themselves without an extended support network when new babies arrive. This can result in new parents feeling particularly isolated. In their working lives professional mums and dads have been very much in control, organised and efficient with a broad network of colleagues. However, once on parental leave, that can all change pretty dramatically and new parents can feel very alone as they face the challenges of the early parenting journey.

Despite social media, social connectedness can be hard to achieve. As many as one in four mothers report low levels of social support and research demonstrates ever increasing rates of social disconnection.

Parents particularly at risk of disconnection include those who are new arrivals to Australia and those who have demanding care responsibilities such as caring for a child with high support needs.

Social isolation is a significant predictor of poor outcomes for mothers, fathers and their children including increased risk postpartum depressive symptoms.

The Juggling Act: Frequently, both parents are working and have careers: the practical juggle of careers and parenting, child care accessibility and affordability, parental leave, pressures of returning to work and the pressure to be seen as both the perfect employee and the perfect parent (and the perfect partner!) can and does create an enormous pressure on new parents. However, depending on the workplace culture, parents can feel too vulnerable to admit that they may be struggling with any or each or all of their responsibilities.

There are still quite high rates of tacit discrimination with fear of job loss or lesser roles, being overlooked for promotions or a feeling of “letting the team down”. There’s still that pressure to stay late to show corporate loyalty and that they are committed to their work (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014).

Apart from the emotional side of adjusting to parenthood is the practical side of having children in your care.

Absence of Restorative Sleep: Someone once said ‘sleep is life’s nurse, sent from heaven to create us anew day by day’. Many new parents suddenly find themselves up and awake several times through the night for quite long stretches at a time. We all know what it’s like not to have a good night’s sleep but when it’s happening night after night the toll can be immense.

Childcare: Apart from choosing the right childcare for your child – family day care, traditional day care, other family members looking after the baby, childcare is expensive and new parents are having to factor in costs of up to $180 per day.

Illness: With childcare and early childhood comes increased illness so working parents need to factor in how they are going to cope. Children attending child care centres experience a greater number of illnesses than do children cared for at home. When observing children over a 12-18 month period, Wald et al reported that children attending centres had 51 per cent more episodes of infection, and 134 per cent more days of illness than children cared for at home. (Department of Health, 2018).

Breastfeeding: People write books on this subject and the reason why is that it’s both important to understand and often really challenging to carry out. Returning to work and deciding whether to continue breast feeding or not is yet another major decision for returning mothers.

Guilt and Judgement: Parenting is one of the jobs that every person has an opinion about or a point to make, even if they’re not parents! However parents still feel guilty about leaving work on time or having to take leave if children are sick. Feedback from working parents indicates they feel judged in both roles.

Feeling part of the Team: Parents returning from leave may struggle to feel how they fit as part of the team particularly if there are no other parents in the team or they are better placed to stay back and do extra hours or work flexible hours. It’s important to have a plan and a conversation well before parental leave is taken about how to stay connected and plans for the return to work (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016).

Schedule and Performance: This often relates to the schedule at home and how this relates to performance at work. There is immense pressure on parents to provide every waking moment of a child’s life devoted to a learning experience and that the “norm” just isn’t good enough. We encourage parents not to over commit their schedules as time at home with parents/carers is just as valuable to a child’s learning and outcomes.

What are some of the challenges that organisations face in supporting working parents?

There are many business challenges. The increased focus on gender equality, diversity and discrimination against parents in the workplace present significant organisational issues.

  • Baby boomers are expected to be just 17% of the workforce by 2020 and the number of working parents, particularly working mothers, continues to rise. HR functions should already have this in their five year plans as they think about what it means for their workplace and whether they are really ready to meet the needs of parents, as they become both the main breadwinners and caregivers.
  • This new working parent generation want to be hands on, engaged and present in their parenting approach. They expect to work post parental leave rather than ‘stay-at-home’ and want a purposeful career that will challenge and sustain them and their family, but not at the cost of their own well-being. They don’t expect to have to choose between their career and to compromise on the value they place on ‘active’ parenting. In other words, this generation want their family lifestyle choices to be proactively supported by their workplaces as they grow their career, rather than letting their career choices define or drive how and when they actively engage in raising their family, around their work commitments.
  • As Gen X and Y continue to emerge as the ‘new breed’ of two income parents juggling busy careers and family life, their needs, expectations and realities are very different from the generation before them – and both the Government and Employers must be prepared to adapt and respond to the needs and challenges facing the modern working parent. Organisations are keen to promote themselves as family friendly, embracing cultural diversity and inclusion. But how are they demonstrating this beyond the policy level?
  • Mental health issues can impact employees and how that manifests in the workplace (absenteeism, presenteeism and productivity) needs to be actively and sensitively managed by managers.
  • When parents do feel safe enough to disclose mental health issues or domestic violence matters – it’s critical that managers and team leaders are well equipped on how to deal with such disclosures and are able to escalate and establish immediate support networks for their colleagues.

How can organisations proactively support and assist parents’ mental health & wellbeing?

  • Encourage help seeking behaviours
  • Promote early intervention & prevention
  • Reduce stigma attached to mental ill-health and service access
  • Target vulnerable groups and men during periods of elevated risk
  • Deliver ‘dad-friendly’ services.

In particular, what trends have you noticed emerging in Australia in relation to Working Dads?

The number of dads who want or need to be much more active in their parenting role is increasing significantly and more are taking time off work when their babies are born. However, compared to other countries, the uptake of parental leave is still very low in Australia, less than 5% compared to 45% in Sweden and Iceland (WGEA, 2015).

Social expectations have for some time precluded fathers from talking about their feelings and adjustment to fatherhood. Research tells us that not just new mums, but also new dads can experience post natal depression and anxiety with up to 4.4% screening positive for anxiety or depression.

Coupled with the pressures of fatherhood, more financial responsibility, changes in relationships and lifestyles, combined with lack of sleep and an increased workload at home may all contribute to a dad’s mental health and wellbeing (Beyond Blue, 2014).

Much of the attention has and continues to be on the mother: the birth, the baby. Men have been on the periphery with health services hyper-vigilant to maternal health and wellbeing, follow up appointments, screening for anxiety and depression.

Karitane can see that there is definitely a culture shift happening that challenges these historical and outdated views. We recently opened a drop-in Parenting Store at Westfield Bondi, no referral needed, just walk in and speak to a child and family health nurse.

We have been thrilled to see the number of dads coming into the store, openly seeking advice on how to be a “good enough dad” often reflecting that the generation of dads before them have not been strong role models.

We are also witnessing a growth in online support groups and information specifically targeting new dads and a greater willingness to talk about their experiences. Check out

What can we do to support more men to take extended periods of parental leave or to become the Primary Carer?

Come from a position of support. Focus on the employee not the employment stage. Large organisations should establish policies and an organisational culture that supports parents at both a high and local level. Leaders must work on their team culture and create the right environment to support the change.

But remember, one size does not fit all. As every family is different so too is the support required. Avoid going to what you know or using strategies that a previous employee used as it may not fit every employee (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016).

Are there any organisations or sectors doing this well right now in Australia?

Medibank is the only Australian organisation where both parents can access 18 weeks parental leave and they decide how they wish to share it. Most companies still identify the mother as the primary carer – entitled to 18 weeks parental leave, but the dad is currently viewed as the secondary carer with leave entitlements of 2-3 weeks.

Stockland offer 16 weeks parental leave in addition to the Government’s paid leave and 2 weeks for secondary carers however an additional 14 weeks is able to be taken if the secondary carer decides to become a primary carer (WGEA, 2016).

The Male Champions of Change group has a focus on parental support and many organisations in this group are sharing and promoting how they are supporting parents in their workplace.

What is your vision for Australian working parents?

That working parents are encouraged, supported, empowered and enabled to have an equal share of parenting time to nurture safe, happy and healthy children.

Tell us about the Aussie Dads campaign you are sponsoring in conjunction with Parents@Work, Deloitte and Westpac.

Karitane is delighted to be a sponsor of the Aussie Dads Campaign in Sydney and Melbourne during August with a special event showcase on 28th August at Westfield Pitt St Mall for Fathers’ Day.

This International business leaders’ event and photographic exhibition aims to support the advancement of shared parental leave in Australia and shows some wonderful pictures of Aussie Dads on their parental leave journey as part of a global gender equality advocacy initiative to increase men’s parental leave participation and improve parental leave equality.

A new best practice guide for employers will be launched that includes benchmarked shared parental leave policies and how they can increase participation of Australian fathers taking parental leave. We will be highlighting the business benefits of advancing men’s participation in parental leave and flexible work; recognising the positive impact it has on women, men, children, society and the broader economy.

We will also examine key research findings on the challenges that hold men back from participating in parental leave and flexible work and explore how industry can look beyond policy changes to advance shared care participation by men and women; reduce prejudice and discrimination; and promote inclusiveness of those with caring commitments.

This event aims to shine a light on the important role of fathers in caring and discuss how to advance policies that are inclusive of men and women sharing parental leave.

Karitane is a not for profit, registered charity established since 1923 that provides parenting support and education to mums, dads and families during the early years of parenting for children aged 0-5 years. Our teams of child and family health nurses, psychologists, social workers, GPs, pediatricians and psychiatrists guide, support and educate families to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for their children. A diverse range of programs are offered to a wide demographic of families including culturally and linguistically diverse, indigenous and new arrivals to Australia. We offer sleep, settling and breastfeeding support for new parents alongside programs for more vulnerable families such as teenage pregnancy support programs, trauma & behavioural conduct disorder programs, juvenile justice programs for young parents in custody, mental health, anxiety and depression interventions as well as supporting families with drug and alcohol, child protection and domestic violence issues.

To maximise accessibility, we offer a range of inpatient, outpatient and telehealth (‘virtual home visit’) services across NSW and deliver Business Support Packages nationally in the workplace through webinars and onsite in-services to help corporate organisations provide practical, tailored parenting support for families in their workplace. Karitane has strong academic partnerships with universities and drives a robust research and education program ensuring up to date, contemporary and evidence based interventions.