01 June 2023

Working Mothers Guilt: What Can Employers Do?

Working mothers are the real superheroes in society. They often face severe burnout daily due to trying to complete their laundry list of tasks on time. Being a full-time employee is a full-time job, as is being a mother. Often mothers go from one job to the next. They go to work, pick their children up, take them wherever they need to go, cook dinner, and put them to bed all in 24 hours. Only to wake up and repeat it the next day. The burnout rate for working mothers is extremely high, leading to the maternal guilt many working mothers experience. Therefore, employers must recognize this burnout and implement changes in the workplace to increase these individuals' wellbeing.


It is important to note that working mothers are not the only population experiencing this burnout. Anyone in a caregiving role may share this, as being a caregiver is a full-time job. Some individuals may need to take care of an elderly loved one, or may have a partner who needs significant medical attention, or maybe they are taking care of a family member as a favour to another family member or loved one. Regardless, the burnout these individuals experience is genuine and not limited to working mothers alone.


Before employers can implement strategies to reduce this burnout, they need to understand the source of this guilt. A significant source of this guilt derives from social ideologies and expectations of what a good mother is. Society has created many standards for what it believes the qualities of a good mother are, and if mothers feel as though they do not meet these expectations, they often feel shame or guilt about themselves as a result. A study about maternal employment guilt listed some of these beliefs. They include, "A good mother is always available to her children, a good mother always puts her children's needs before her own, children need their mothers permanently at least for the first 3-5 ages, the total responsibility of children belongs to mothers at all times, and motherhood is worthwhile and intrinsically rewarding despite having a low-status job" (Umran & Kantas, 2019). These are all heavy expectations for mothers to follow, so it is no surprise that mothers feel guilty if they cannot meet these ideologies. These beliefs even specify that they are traits of "good" mothers, implying that if one cannot meet these expectations, they are a terrible mother. According to these beliefs, being a so-called "good" mother is nearly impossible for working mothers. These expectations are constantly posted on social media, in magazines, online, in the news, etc., leaving mothers to feel constantly inadequate in their roles. Therefore, it is up to employers, and HR departments to do what they can to abolish these false beliefs society has created and make the workplace a better environment for working mothers and caregivers.


Working is so prevalent for many people that it is often one of many employees' primary sources of happiness. Typically, if individuals are not satisfied in the workplace, that will spill over into their personal and home lives and cause them to have a lower sense of wellbeing overall. In order to increase wellbeing of all employees, managers and employers must meet all of their employee's three basic psychological needs, a concept derived from the Self Determination Theory.


Self Determination Theory argues that all humans have three essential psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and we must meet all three of those needs for an individual to thrive. The effects of goal pursuit and attainment depend on the degree to which these needs are satisfied (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Therefore, working mothers must find a purpose in their work and be intrinsically motivated to succeed before they can thrive. This motivation begins with employers meeting their employees' fundamental needs.


The first step towards meeting employees' basic needs is allowing them to be autonomous in the workplace. Autonomy is an individual difference, as well as an enduring aspect of one's personality which reflects one's awareness of self and feeling a sense of choice in whatever behaviours one engages in (Kantas et al., 2019). Therefore, giving working mothers a choice in their responsibilities can increase their sense of autonomy in the workplace. One researcher examined autonomy in the workplace and found that when workers rated their managers as autonomy supportive, they felt trust in their corporation and were less stressed at work. This example is precisely what managers and employers must do. They need to create an environment for these mothers and caregivers that will allow them to make more autonomous decisions. One major way employers could do this would be to give these individuals the flexibility to have more say in their schedule. Many times, working mothers are tasked with picking up their children after work, but they are unable to because they cannot get out of work by that time. Providing mothers with the opportunity to leave early from work if they need to or creating a more flexible daily schedule for themselves could cause these individuals to feel more autonomous and increase their satisfaction in the workplace.


Additionally, the period of maternity leave is often not long enough for most mothers, as the typical range is roughly 8-10 weeks. However, the recovery time from giving birth and adjusting to the significant life change of having children differs for every mother, so while ten weeks may be sufficient for one person, the same might not be accurate for another. Allowing working mothers to create their maternity leave schedule, or extending it for everyone in general, would put many more working mothers at ease about how soon they have to return to work. Giving working mothers and caregivers the freedom to make their own decisions about their schedules can increase their autonomy and increase overall workplace and life satisfaction.


Relatedness is another basic psychological need that, when satisfied, allows people to feel a sense of connectedness and like they belong within their environment. It is crucial that working mothers feel a sense of relatedness in the workplace. Frequently, working mothers will return from maternity leave and feel disconnected from the work environment due to being gone for some time and missing out on quality time with coworkers. Alternatively, if there are no other parental figures in the workplace, they may feel that no one understands them and, therefore, cannot relate to colleagues. This situation makes the workplace challenging because it is complicated to work in an environment where one feels out of place or like they do not belong. 


In order to minimize this sensation, employers and HR departments can increase or build a sense of community for these individuals. They could create a group or club within the workplace designated to parents, working mothers, and caregivers so that these individuals feel like they can more easily relate to their coworkers. Creating a space for these individuals to vent, advise one another, or talk would allow them to feel like they belong within their workplace. Employers could build a daycare centre in the workplace so that these parents and mothers can minimize all the trips they have to take throughout the day, allowing them to worry less about childcare. Having an entire centre in the workplace for daycare would also increase relatedness because dropping off or picking up a child would be more normalized if there was a dedicated spot for that in the workplace. It would allow these parents and caregivers to meet their colleagues who are going through the same experiences. A daycare centre would normalize being a mother or caregiver in the workplace, thus allowing these individuals to feel like their personal needs are being met and creating a greater sense of belonging.


The final basic psychological need, competence, involves individuals feeling effective and capable in what they do. Individuals who feel competent in their work environment can feel a sense of growth and development in their role and an overall sense of succeeding at what they are doing. For working mothers to feel competent in their role, there needs to be good communication between the employer and caregiver. When individuals return from maternity leave, they may feel lost or not know what is going on in their workplace because they have been absent for a while and no one informed them of any new updates or what has been happening. This occurrence causes these individuals to feel behind and worry that they will no longer perform well in their roles. To prevent this, employers can sit down with working mothers before they go on maternity leave and create a plan for what will happen when they leave when they are gone, and when they return, which could be a parental leave handbook. Briefly explaining what these individuals will miss while they are gone will keep them in the loop so they do not feel lost upon their return. As it gets closer to their return, employers can also reach out to mothers and create a plan so they know what to expect when they return to the workplace.


Creating a handbook for mothers and caregivers allows them to be better equipped to know what to expect for their return to the workplace, making that transition easier for them overall.


Working mothers have much on their plate, between working full-time and caring for their little ones. There is a great sense of guilt that accompanies being a working mother, but fulfilling one's basic psychological needs both inside and outside of the workplace can decrease some of that maternal and employment guilt. However, mothers cannot do this alone. It is up to employers and HR departments to implement strategies and policies within the workplace that will allow these individuals to thrive and meet their fundamental needs. Satisfying the basic needs of working mothers and caregivers is the first step towards reducing maternal employment guilt and creating a better environment for working mothers and caregivers across the globe.




Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry,11(4), 227-268. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_DeciRyan_PIWhatWhy.pdf


Kantas, O., & Yuce-Selvi, U. (2019). On the road to job quit: working mothers’ autonomy, employment guilt, and job satisfaction [PowerPoint Slides]. Google Slides. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1SKGHXpGQJx1kTzAd4WyiBTPyt_6uRshE/edit #slide=id.p1


Umran, S.Y., & Kantas, O (2019). The psychometric evaluation of the maternal employment guilt scale: A development and validation study. ISGUC The Journal of Industrial Relations and Human Resources, 27-52. 10.4026/isguc.543449

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