You can’t have both, society tells us. You have to sacrifice one for the other. It’s a story that’s so deeply ingrained in our society that many people live it out unquestioningly. And suffer the consequences. The consequences are severe. Mental health issues on the rise, family breakdowns, tiny children in childcare for 8, 10, 12 hours a day, five days a week so parents can pay the bills and have a little left over for those precious weekends together as a family. Which are often enjoyed through a fog of the hangover from the week of work.

Women have been victims of this story for a long time, but they’ve been fighting it. Men are also the victims, but they have either suffered stoically. In silence. Or, they’ve unquestioningly believed in the story too.

The men at the top of our organisations are the ones that have made this story reality. Or at the very least are complicit in the toll it takes on families through their silence and inaction. Why is that?

Maybe it’s the pressure to conform to social and peer expectations, meaning only the strong succeed (ironically conforming is a sign of weakness). Maybe it’s greed, manifesting in not wanting to give away what they’ve got. Maybe it’s spite, materialising as ‘I had to sacrifice so everyone else should too’.

Of course there is another way of looking at it. Society is a meritocracy. The more you do, the better you become. The further up the career ladder you go. But millennia of human history, evidence of deep rooted biases, the allures of greed and flat out stupidity in the face of evidence, shows this view to be false. Meritocracy? Not in this reality.

Thankfully there are signs of things changing. Parent networks, four day weeks, debates about childcare costs, stacks and stacks of evidence proving the pound and a bit of flesh mentality is counter productivity. But more is needed.

Recently I got an email from dad called Rob asking for advice. He had a promotion to consider, with more pay, but less time with his family. He asked me how I would think about that decision. Here’s an edit version of what I said.

Productivity is a function of life-quality

Miserable people do bad work. Misery is infectious, so others do bad work. Stretching yourself too thin, sacrificing the most precious things in your life and missing moments you will never have again will make you miserable. Not straight away. Maybe not for a few months. But the longer it goes on, the more miserable you will become. The worse your work will get. The very reason they wanted you to do the job will disappear. So if they want you to do the job, it won’t work the way they want it to. I want to be really clear, you are NOT sacrificing family for career or career for family. You’re being honest about the reality of the choice they’ve given you. Which leads me to the next point.

Challenge the thinking

Does the job have to be done in the way they’ve proposed? They’ve chosen you because they value you. This means they respect your opinion. They will listen to it. If you can figure out a way to get the job done in a different way, a way that works better for you, and your family, they will listen. Haggle. Use your nous.  

Put the emphasis back on them

Remember they’ve chosen you. They want you to do the job. You know the way they’ve set out the job won’t work for either of you. You’ve done your thinking about how it could work differently. But ask them first. After all, they want you. If they aren’t serious about finding a way to make it work for you, then they aren’t being honest about the reality of the choice they’ve given you. Worst case. But at least then you will know your future doesn’t lie with them. Best case, they surprise you with options you hadn’t considered. You already have your fall back option worked out if they agree with the logic, but can’t come up with a solution. 

How will things change?

With Rob’s situation in mind, let’s go back to that pernicious and ever present story. How do we change it?

Perhaps more dads (and mums) will refuse to work longer to get further ahead. A workers revolt! Unlikely, very unlikely, but it might happen.

Perhaps the growing pile of evidence linking healthy minds and bodies to healthy business performance, might change the story from the top. But this only applied to organisations led by people who believe in, and use, evidence to make decisions. So we can’t expect legislation to be changing for the better anytime soon.

Perhaps more parents will get smarter about how they approach work, get better at negotiating arrangements that work for them. A blend of flexible working, part-time hours, rewards connected more to results than hours. Rejecting employers that aren’t willing to work with them to get the best for both. This is already happening.

Really it won’t be one route that takes us forward, it will be people blazing trails on all fronts that start to change the system.

How can we help our children?

If success at work is a function of the impact you have, not 100%, but certainly a big contributing factor, maybe we need a better way of helping people discover what they are great at earlier in life. Because if we did that then the impact per hour that person makes would increase. They’d be delivering more with less, rather than slogging away at something they just fell into that probably isn’t a great fit. And although we don’t live in a meritocracy, good performance does get recognised.

I don’t hold out much hope of someone else doing this for my children, so I’m going to do it myself. I’m going to take a steal something billionaire investor Chris Sacca’s dad did. When Chris was at school, his dad got him two summer jobs. One was at a breakers yard. Hard manual labour. The other was shadowing a lobbyist in Washington. Not a righteous career, but certainly a great contrast. Chris is quite clear how these experiences shaped his approach to work. They showed him the world is full of possibilities, he had to work hard and take them.

How can we create a better working world for them to grow into?

Parents work incredibly hard to set their children up with the best chances of having happy, fulfilling lives. But our focus tends to be narrowly focused on our children. If we want our children to avoid the pernicious story and the choices it forces us to make, we need to broaden it out.

What can we do to change the way the world of work works?

Making decisions that show there’s another way is a good start. Celebrating others doing the same and supporting new parents in our places of work to follow suit. For those lucky enough to be in leadership positions, whose actions count as much as, if not more than their words, they have the chance to lead the change from the front.

To write a new story.