This Strategy Can Help Working Parents Boost Their Effectiveness at Work—and at Home

It’s 11:00pm. Kids, cat, dog, bird, and probably husband are sound asleep. I pad out to my home office in my blue fleece PJs and start my second work day—answering e-mails, reviewing reports, prepping for meetings, and working on my book as the manuscript deadline nears—pushing myself until I can’t go anymore or until a caffeine or chocolate craving hits and I indulge in a little benign substance use to get my second (or third or fourth) wind.

I know I’m not the only working parent who burns the candle at both ends and fears I might just flame out one day. Statistics on stress levels in working moms bear this out. In one study, 93 per cent of the women frequently felt under stress trying to balance a career with raising a family. A survey found that one in four working moms cry once a week due to stress. And a 17-year study of working mothers in Australia found that they are feeling the pressure of juggling home, work, and leisure time more than ever before.

Fathers, too, feel the strain. Compared with their fathers, today’s dads spend three times as much time caring for kids and do two times the amount of housework. In one survey, over two-thirds of working fathers reported work/family conflict and stress. One study found 38 percent of dads said they would take a cut in pay and work fewer hours in order to strike a better work/life balance. And all working parents are dealing with lower job security coupled with greater job demands.

As a full-time research professor and parent of two, I live these statistics first-hand. I know what it’s like to feel perpetually tired, to wear mother guilt like a permanent accessory, to always have my attention split in a million different directions, and to take longer than I planned to finish everything—be it a DIY home project, a professional goal, or just getting a haircut.

It took me two-and-a-half years to write my book. I thought it would take one year. But I persisted because I wanted to explain that I had found a way to reduce my stress and help build resilience and optimism in my kids as well as in myself—by playing more to our strengths.

Strengths aren’t not just things we’re good at. Psychologists define three qualities in a true strength: high performance, high energy, and high use. In other words, a strength is something we do well, happily, and often. So far, researchers have identified more than 100 strengths that can be measured and improved, from skills such as playing an instrument, crafting, or sports to character traits such as adaptability, curiosity, humor, persistence, competitiveness, and kindness.

Three decades of research point to the advantages of taking a strength-based approach in our lives, including better work performance, greater levels of happiness at work, and greater likelihood of staying at work.

Research shows that the benefits of playing to strengths spill over outside of work, too: more happiness in marriage, higher levels of physical health, better recovery after illness, increased life satisfaction, and higher self-esteem.

Studies have also found that helping your kids play to their strengths helps them to develop resilience, build optimism, do better at school, handle friendship stress, and much more.

Why do we get these benefits? Our strengths energize us mentally, physically, and emotionally because they come naturally to us. We feel at our best and most authentic when we use them, and we’re motivated to continue doing so. They’re not as tiring as when we’re slogging along trying to improve our weaknesses, work on gaps and, just generally, feeling deficient and guilty about our short comings and our limitations.

But society has a chronic case of negativity bias and fixates on what’s wrong with us. Take the workplace as an example and our kids. Performance reviews focus by and large on our weaknesses. Why not instead invest in building our strengths? Working on weaknesses will only take us from sub-par to baseline. When we work from our strengths, the sky is the limit for how far we can go.

The same can be said for families. When parents adopt a strength-based approach, not only are their kids more resilient and optimistic, but parents feel more confident and the family is more likely to flourish and function as a team – building each family member up. Connecting kids with their strengths gives them a role in the family—the organized child who’s a great team player on home clean-up projects . . . the budding chef who enjoys making tasty recipes for parties or home-baked holiday gifts . . . the child whose playful sense of humor can bring smiles even during sad times . . . the curious child who digs up info on places to visit for family trips. Their strengths help them contribute to the family and make them feel important and valued—and it makes parents’ jobs easier—something every working parent wants.

As for those late-night work sessions, I’ve learned to put a cap on them by realizing that when I overplay strengths like conscientiousness and kindness, it can lead me to work unreasonably long hours so that I don’t disappoint people. Now I redirect those strengths and practice using other strengths like fairness, self-discipline, and perspective to turn off the computer and go to bed, knowing I will be more effective (i.e., conscientious) and nicer to be around (i.e., kinder) tomorrow if I get the rest I need tonight.

Can a person be successful working from weakness or limits? Maybe. But is that person truly fulfilling her potential, and with resilience and optimism? Imagine instead a world where every one of us could work from our strengths, with all the energy, resourcefulness, and joyful fierceness that come from loving what we do and doing it very well. I look forward to that day.