Active fathering: The key to being a great dad through flexible work

Graeme Russell
Topics Flexibility

Men commonly say they want to be involved with their children and, for some, this means they want to be active fathers. Involvement can mean different things to different fathers.

For some it means making sure they spend time with a newborn baby or a newly adopted child; for others it means getting involved in the day-to-day care, changing nappies, feeding, toilet training and so on; for yet others it means being available at times that they see as being more critical (e.g. late afternoon when the children come home from school), to connect and listen to their child, or simply to be there with them. And for others it means making considerable adjustments to their work by adapting their career aspirations and work responsibilities, or reducing their hours (e.g. by working part-time, or taking paternity or parental leave), so that they can take responsibility for the care of their children for a significant part of the week.

This adjustment is sometimes especially significant for single and separated fathers.  There are also more gay dads sharing the care of their children, and more families are now choosing the option of having both parents work less than full-time hours, so they can share the care of their children.  

Despite these changes, few men report that their workplaces are highly responsive to the needs of fathers.  The challenge of combining work and fatherhood is something that many men figure out for themselves, with little support from their workplace or from other fathers. So, what could fathers do?  There are two possible approaches.  

1. Take personal responsibility by changing your approach at work by:

  • Figuring out what flexibility would work best for you (e.g. flexible starting/finishing times or a compressed working week) and then check out your organisation’s policies and your right to request flexible work.
  • Developing a business-based argument for the flexibility you need and present this to your supervisor or workgroup. The key to achieving a positive outcome is to put the emphasis on mutuality – mutual responsibility for you and the organisation, and mutual benefits for you both as well.
  • Increasing your opportunities to engage in flexible work and be a more active father by redesigning how you do your job.  This could include: 
- Deciding on your most important priorities at work, then putting more effort into these and reducing your efforts in other areas.
- Identifying any non-essential work-related activities and eliminate them for a period of time (e.g. attending out-of-hours social activities).
- Saying no to requests that are not central to your job (e.g. taking on a new project).
- Finding ways to become more efficient at work. When we do this, we often find that we have too many unnecessary interruptions in our work lives (e.g. phone calls and emails), so try to work out a system for becoming more efficient at responding to all forms of communication.
- Adjusting your expectations about what you are able to do. This might mean adjusting your career aspirations for a period of time.
- Looking for ways to have greater control over what you do.
- Reorganising your workday to put a priority on being at home for the evening meal, or to take regular responsibility for bathing your children, helping them with their homework, or putting them to bed.
- Switching off from work, both psychologically and physically (e.g. turning your mobile phone off when you are with your children, not engaging in work on the weekends), so that you are fully switched on to your children.
- Conducting an audit of your work patterns and father-involvement every couple of weeks, to check how you are going with keeping your work in perspective.

2.  If you are both a father and a manager or supervisor, you could:

  • Encourage fathers who report to you to combine their work and family commitments by utilising flexible work (e.g. flexible hours, reduced hours).
  • Actively encourage the fathers who report to you to take paternity leave. You could initiate the conversation and find ways to re-organise work commitments to enable the father to take leave.
  • Start a forum where the diversity of fathers can meet and openly discuss issues that affect their lives.
  • Introduce a Dads’ Day at work in your area, and encourage fathers to bring in their children to work.
  • Be an effective role model yourself by demonstrating your own active fatherhood by engaging in flexible work.
  • Look for ways to communicate the importance of active fatherhood both to children, families, fathers themselves and to your organisation.
  • Help to frame your company as a father-friendly employer when recruiting, and in general advertising.  Find ways to associate your brand with active fatherhood.
  • When having career development conversations, consider the different needs of fathers at different stages of their careers, and explore options for career flexibility.
  • Look for opportunities to affirm and celebrate the role of fathers.

About Dr Graeme Russell
Dr Graeme Russell is the joint author (with Tony White) of the book: 'First-time father: The essential guide for the new dad' (2012; Finch Publishing). Graeme is an internationally renowned researcher and industry consultant on diversity, flexibility, organisational change and work/life and has consulted widely to business. He is the author or co-author of four books and over 50 research papers on gender, diversity and work-life issues.

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