Interview with Kerrie Walkem on the well-being of parents & carers working in academia

Kerrie Walkem is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board and a very experienced family health professional.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your professional experience and background.

I am a registered nurse and midwife and have spent most of my time in clinical practice working as a child and family health nurse here in Australia and as a health visitor overseas. In terms of academia I have been teaching in the postgraduate child and family health nursing stream since 2000 and coordinating and teaching the course for the past 10 years.

Q2. What are the common challenges faced by parents that can impact on their own health and well-being?

I think there is a whole new dynamic at play as you now have a small person totally dependent on you for their care. While our pathways are individual ones - we react in different ways and have our own unique set of circumstances – it is normal to find aspects of your new life challenging. Most commonly there is the challenge of fatigue due to lack of sleep, and this is combined with taking on one of the most difficult roles of all, being a parent. It can leave you feeling vulnerable. The new physical and emotional demands made on you can leave little time to attend to your own needs including your relationships with others.

Those parents who have returned to work sometimes discuss this as a constant struggle as they are pulled between their dual roles, and there is a feeling of not wanting to let anyone down.

Q3. What are the common mistakes made by new parents and parents with older children in relation to their own health and well-being?

Being reluctant to ask for help or accepting it when it is offered. While some might view it as a weakness or a sign of you not coping, it is in fact a strength. Every parent needs help and support. Involve your family and friends – it makes them feel valued. Outsource certain tasks if you can.

Related to this is the importance of making time for your relationships with other people. It is important to have a strong social support network around you - having family and friends who can support you emotionally and practically, and who make you feel good.

Feeling guilt for accepting help with child care for example. While your relationship with your child is the most important one of all, children benefit from having a network of caring, loving and supportive adults around them as they grow. Nurture that network. Also remembering that while people may not always do things the way that you do this does not make it wrong – just different.

It is also important not to put yourself last. You need to fill up your own tank, as the happier you are, often the better a parent (and employee) you will be. This includes the obvious things such as eating well, prioritising sleep, and exercising (exercise has been found to decrease stress and help prevent perinatal depression). It also means regularly doing things you enjoy just for you. Looking after yourself means that you are more able to care for your child. When you look after yourself you are also looking after your child.

Believing the many unrealistic expectations of both parenthood and employees and trying to meet the expectations of both.

Learning to say ‘no’. This includes work-related responsibilities. Be strategic around what you agree to and what you won’t agree to.

Q4. What guidance would you give to working parents to support their own health and well-being as they juggle academia and caring responsibilities?

In addition to those I have already covered, I think having a good working relationship with your manager so that you can openly and honestly discuss your situation with them. This may include the need for flexibility around work hours or work location, or the timing of meetings.

Be prepared to be flexible with a young child. The unexpected will always happen. Children are unpredictable – their routines change, and they may suddenly have days when they are unwell. Prepare a back-up plan. What options are open to you? 

Remember to ask for help when you need it and accept help when it is offered. Value and make time to maintain friendships and have regular time out even if it just for a short time. Don’t neglect your own needs.

Q5. Are there particular resources or help focused on supporting the health and well-being of parents working in academia?

While there are a lot of supports out there for new parents, I suggest getting to know someone whose job it is to be familiar with all these resources – such as your GP or child and family health nurse. They are able to discuss with you what are often a range of options and help direct you to the most appropriate one. There are some amazing programs around, but resources and services are often very specific to particular localities, so it can be good to discuss what each has to offer with someone who knows you.

There are, of course, a whole range of parenting books and websites on offer. For quick and reliable information, I would suggest websites such as those of The Raising Children Network. This is an Australian website which is regularly updated and covers a whole range of topics.

Q6. What are the university structures or policies that hinder parents working in academia who want to achieve a healthy lifestyle, and how could these be addressed?

There are many positives such as the ability to be flexible around work, the ability to buy annual leave and the provision of child-care on site. These are all considered valuable supports. Some parents, however, would like the ability to buy even more annual leave than is currently possible. They would also value having the ability to take leave during semester time as school holidays don’t always coincide with the semester breaks. Others would like to see the provision of child care extended to vacation-care for children on site. The ability to be flexible in terms of both work hours and work location (such as working from home) is considered by parents as one of the most helpful strategies available to them. At the same time this can often be a double-edged sword for them as it may also lead to unrealistic expectations of both their availability and their work load, creating additional stress.

Colleagues also stress the lack of backfill. This results in staff coming to work when they or their children are unwell, as there is no-one available to cover their teaching commitments. This impacts not only their own health but their feelings of self-efficacy as a parent as they cannot provide the care that their child requires in the way they would like to. Consideration around the development of back-up plans for staff sick and carer leave would also be helpful in terms of achieving a healthy lifestyle. They would also find it helpful if academic performance expectations in terms of publications etc were adjusted according to time taken out for family-related leave.

Finally, it seems that the experience of academics who are also parents is often dependent on the culture within their department. While I think most experience this very positively, receiving a lot of support from their colleagues, there are also situations that present practical challenges. Parents value consideration around such things as the scheduling of meetings and the timing of work-related travel interstate. Inculcating a culture that is family-friendly and where it is common practice to consider the needs of members of staff when such decisions are made (even when it may not always be possible or realistic to address them) would do much to help parents achieve a healthy lifestyle.

Q7. Do you have any other comments?

Remember that you are doing a good job and that are doing the best you can. Take time to enjoy your relationship with your child. You are the most important person in their life.