Though they’re members of the same scientific field, Virginia Tech psychologists Charles Calderwood and Rosanna Breaux usually feel worlds apart in what they study. Breaux is a clinical child psychologist who works with children with ADHD, while Calderwood is an industrial organizational psychologist who focuses on work stress. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continued into the fall of 2020, their worlds collided: working parents of children with special needs had to navigate new environments of teleworking and virtual schooling at the same time.
For Calderwood and Breaux, both in the Department of Psychology, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, that clash of work and family life became an unexpected outlet for collaboration. By working together, they could better understand how the situation created stress for parents raising children with special needs, including ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, and other social, emotional, behavioral, and academic concerns.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, the researchers found that when these parents worked in jobs that were more chronically stressful, the daily family challenges they faced at home had a greater impact on their emotional well-being and sense of work-life balance. Calderwood and Breaux see lessons in their findings that could help organizations better support employees in unprecedented, difficult contexts such as COVID-19.
In the fall of 2020, parents of children with special needs had to go without the additional trained support their kids were used to receiving at school. There was a lot of juggling involved, Breaux said. For parents of children with learning disabilities, for instance, that could mean stopping mid-work at 20-minute intervals to monitor their children’s time as they attended class virtually.
The researchers surveyed parents dealing with these circumstances in late 2020. They had parents look at two types of day-to-day challenges in their lives at the time: work challenges like the time pressure of upcoming deadlines, and family challenges such as a child’s academic, emotional, or behavioral difficulties, including conflict like arguments between kids and parents.
The researchers wanted to know how these short-term challenges interacted with long-term stressors parents faced at work. Chronic work stress can involve emotionally draining work, frequent interactions with difficult people, or the feeling of never having enough time to meet one’s goals, Calderwood said. Parents with chronically stressful jobs found that daily family challenges hit them harder during the pandemic.
“That makes sense, because you have the merger of work and parenting responsibilities at home,” said Breaux, who directs the Virginia Tech Child Study Center. “What we’re seeing is that within this very at-risk population, there’s this subset: when they were feeling depleted, having those day-to-day challenges was even more impactful in their work functioning.”
That buildup of stress could be analogous to that of anxiety or depression, Breaux said. “If you are keeping it all in and it just keeps building and building, eventually it’s going to pop,” she said. “I think we’re seeing something very similar with work functioning, when you have this chronic job stress. Seeing this influence on personal resources for well-being—it’s not sustainable.”
Though the conditions of work and school throughout the country look different today than they did in the fall of 2020, Calderwood believes there’s value in pausing to look back and unpack sources of stress during that moment in the pandemic, particularly for employers.
And there are lessons: “Even when your employees are in the midst of quite difficult situations, even if they’re driven by a calamitous global pandemic, you can still have an impact if you take proactive steps to try to support their well-being and make their job less chronically stressful,” Calderwood said.
“We need to have some flexibility,” Breaux added. “The traditional nine to five of getting things done is not going to work when we’re in these situations, [it] and doesn’t work for many families—even not during teleworking—when they have kids with emotional, behavioral, and academic needs that lead to disruptions in the workday.”
These findings would’ve been harder to surface without collaboration, Breaux said. With Breaux and Calderwood operating in “totally different silos,” she said, collaboration opened them up to study two sides of life.
“In the clinical child world, we focus very much on the child, the parents, the family, but I don’t think we would ever be asking about the parents’ job stressors or work-life balance,” Breaux said. “And then the opposite is true for the industrial and organizational psychology world. They focus on emotional and work functioning, work-life balance, and burnout, not on specific child challenges. I think collaborations lead to richer understanding on both ends.”
Charles Calderwood et al, When daily challenges become too much during COVID-19: Implications of family and work demands for work–life balance among parents of children with special needs., Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (2022). DOI: 10.1037/ocp0000333
Journal of Occupational Health Psychology
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