Expert Interview with Scott Behson on the Struggles of Working Dads

Struggles of working DadsThere are countless articles and studies about how women can better balance work and family; but as Scott Behson noted a few years back, not too many that dealt with how fathers struggle with the same issues.

While societal structures are still beholden to the "man breadwinner, woman caretaker model," Behson says that it's no longer an accurate reflection of how a majority of us live our lives.

The founder of Fathers, Work and Family says that in 85 percent of dual-parent households, both parents work. And while it is true that fathers are more likely to be the primary income providers, today's responsibilities are now more shared and fluid.

But in workplaces especially, men who prioritize family face two stigmas.

"First, men and women who buck 'all in' work culture are often seen as less dedicated to the company, and this has impact of career trajectories," Behson says. "However, men who step up for family at work are also seen as violating gender norms, and face additional scrutiny."

The result is that dad's concerns stay under the radar at the workplace and are more likely to be ignored. This is further exacerbated by the fact that many men have internalized more rigid gender norms - and sometimes end up contributing to their own predicaments.

We recently checked in with Behson, who's a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of the forthcoming book The Working Dad's Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home, to get more of his insight on the issues surrounding working fathers. Here's what he had to say:

Can you tell us the story behind Fathers, Work and Family? What prompted you to start the site?

Back during my graduate studies, I was interested in workplace flexibility, and a lot of the work in that area had to do with managing work and family concerns. As I read further, I noticed that most of the work in this area either explicitly or implicitly focused on addressing the needs of working mothers as a way employers can retain key female talent.

Even though I was not a father at the time, it struck me that dads are parents, too, and that most of the dads I knew cared deeply about both being successful in their careers and involved fathers. This was always in the back of my mind in my subsequent teaching, academic work and professional work with companies.

In 2012, I decided I wanted to write a book specifically to help dads navigate work and family. A friend of mine gave me the great advice, "if you want to write a book in two years, start a blog now." So I did. That's how the Fathers, Work and Family blog was born, and also how my book happened - just a little over two years later!

Why was it important to you to be a voice for working fathers? How have readers responded?

After I became a father, I understood just how hard it is to be the primary income earner for my family while also being as involved as I wanted to be with my son. As a college professor, I have an unbelievably flexible job with lots of autonomy over when and where I work. I have a fantastic wife with whom I co-constructed a shared-care approach. Everyone's healthy and I make a decent living. Even so, work-family balance is often difficult for me. Most dads have it much tougher.

I thought that my dual perspective as a busy involved dad and as a scholar/consultant in work/life policy could be helpful to my fellow dads. This is especially true given that my wife is a stage actress. Her career is very demanding and her schedule is always changing. I saw the importance in my life for really managing our family's work-family balance, and thought others could benefit from our experience.

Also, I am convinced that the No. 1 reason why things get difficult for working dads is that no one, not even dads themselves, discuss these issues. There's a weird "wall of silence" around the issue of involved fatherhood. I think just by creating a community where we can talk about our concerns makes us feel far less alone in their struggles.

When I started my blog, I feared a great big collective yawn from the universe. However, very quickly my audience grew and I attracted media attention. I think the time was right for advancing this conversation; and because there are still too few voices in this area, the blog skyrocketed. From this initial success, I have been able to write for Time, The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review, and appeared on MSNBC, CBS, Fox News, NPR and Bloomberg Radio. I even got to speak at the White House! It's been a wild ride for me, but I think I just happened upon the right topic at the right time - just before the tipping point.

What are the biggest issues working fathers are concerned about today?

For white-collar dads, the concern is overwork and the fact that work demands often creep into family time. Most professionals work considerably more than 40 hours a week, and many feel tethered to work via emails, smartphones, etc. When clients and bosses are free to call you on the weekends, this time is no longer set aside for family time or personal renewal. This leads to chronic overwork and burnout as well as interruptions to family time.

For dads in hourly jobs, the lack of schedule and income security are the primary problems. A construction worker may spend a month working 60-hour weeks and then work very little over the next few months. A waiter may get 25 hours one week, but get called in to work several extra shifts the next. As a result, it is difficult to plan one's family life around work. Who picks up the kids from school? Who can get there in an emergency?

How do you think spouses/parents can work more effectively with one another to ensure both sides feel satisfied with how their time is being spent while also meeting financial goals and responsibilities?

This is difficult, but you have to start with honest conversations about priorities. When my wife and I first got engaged, we talked about how important our careers were for both of us and how we'd both need to occasionally bend to support each other. When we were expecting our son, we had more conversations. We looked at the trade-offs between career concerns and being hands-on parents, and discussed the financial implications of our decisions. Because we already shared priorities, it made our subsequent decisions and actions easier. We're a really great team.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution. We chose a shared-care approach. Other families chose traditional approaches. As long as your approach matches BOTH of your values and priorities and puts your kids first, you are well on your way. But I see too many families suffer because they are not on the same page. When this happens, typically it is the dad who works more than he'd like and misses out on family time, and it is the mom who reluctantly derails her career and misses out on living in the world of adults for too long. This puts major strains on marriages, which is good for no one.

I don't want to inappropriately plug my book, but this is where I begin, with a discussion of priorities and a series of exercises to jump-start these conversations. Work- and family-related decisions all need to flow from priorities.

How has trying to find this balance affected how you look at family finances?

We try to practice what I call 85 percent budgeting. By this, I mean we try to get all our regular expenses (mortgage, utilities, tuition, etc.) to fit within 85 percent of my very steady and secure salary. Now, we have freedom of choice. I can pursue other work if it feeds my soul (like the blog or the book) or turn down even more lucrative opportunities if they don't fit my family priorities. I can instead spend that time coaching little league, working on professional development, or enjoying lazy afternoons with my son. Similarly, my wife can choose roles based on a range of criteria like artistic merit and long-term career implications, and not just on short-term money.

It can be very hard to reduce expenses and manage one's career so that regular expenses fit comfortably into your budget, but consistent decisions over a few years can get us further than we think. If your mortgage means you have to work extra hours, you are working for your possessions, not vice-versa.

Also, 85 percent budgets mean you can deal with emergencies or even splurge on the fun things in life.

What do you think employers should be doing to facilitate a better work-family balance? What's the ideal you're working toward?

I am convinced that most white-collar jobs can be done better than they are now if the employee could work 30 percent to 40 percent of the time at places other than the office and at times other than regular work hours. Giving this autonomy to employees while holding the line on performance would do wonders not only for work-family balance, but also for companies' bottom lines. Companies would attract and retain better talent, have more engaged employees, and lower absenteeism and turnover.

Some companies have adopted these practices and have seen huge financial returns. Too many companies do not see the long-term benefits, which is a shame for everyone.

I also think we need expanded parental leave for both moms and dads. It's appalling that we are one of four countries in the world with no mandated paid maternity leave. We rely on employee largesse to offer these policies. However, most employers offer very little, especially in terms of paternity leave (14 percent of private employers offer any paternity leave). This is a real shame because the data on the benefits of leave for parents, kids, society and companies could not be clearer.

What are the worst things companies do to their employees - male or female - when it comes to that work-life balance?

For white-collar employees, many companies place workloads and expectations that require far more than full-time work. By staffing more appropriately, giving more time flexibility, and utilizing teams instead of individuals for client-based work, we could make these demands more reasonable. This would allow more time for life and reduce burnout.

For hourly employees, inconsistent scheduling and lack of paid sick days are really damaging to less affluent and more at-risk families.

What types of conversations should workers be having with their employers about finding a better balance? Do you have any advice on what to say and what not to say?

Many managers have good intentions but are afraid that if they allow people to work more flexibly, they will no longer be able to monitor performance. If you want to discuss part-time telework (such as one to two days a week), you need to assure them that your performance will be maintained or even enhanced. There are many ways to do this, including suggesting a trial period, creating weekly progress reports, remaining accessible through technology and making your case based on business needs instead of a "family request." It takes bravery and a good track record to stand up and make the case.

One company I know has managers evaluate the jobs they supervise to determine which parts of work can be done more flexibly, which turns this dynamic on its head. Over 50 percent of employees now work flexibly, and the company is booming.

What are some of your favorite tools or resources for helping working fathers use their time more effectively?

There are many tools available, and I like to borrow ideas from a lot of them. Here are a few principles I think are particularly helpful and that I discuss in detail in my book:

First, you have 168 hours in a week. You can subtract 48 for sleep, 60 for work and 30 for all your other responsibilities and still have 30 left over for discretionary time. This fact shocks most people. If we eliminate wasted time, we can better attend to family concerns and to taking time to take care of ourselves with exercise, social time, couple time, etc. I suggest we all track our time use over a week or two to see where we can make better use of it.

Second, setting aside a large chunk of time to a work task or to family time is so much better than getting distracted, multi-tasking, or carving up our time into smaller bites. Again, by monitoring time use, we can figure out where we can schedule three hours of daddy-daughter time instead of catching 10 minutes here and there. We can find the three hours to compose the budget report instead of being interrupted by emails and side-tasks. Time chunks are a hidden key to success. Time is our one non-renewable resource. We need to use it wisely at work and at home.

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