Working parents want to do it all. They want to have amazing careers and be present for all of their kids’ needs, too. But trying to do it all without some sort of work flexibility can have serious consequences.

Just ask Katrina Alcorn. The creator of the blog Working Moms Break and author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink had a life that most would envy. In her TEDx talk (below), Changing the Conversation About Women and Work, she relays her story of being a Creative Director at her job and a mom of three children. She struggled to juggle it all well—pumping at work, eating dinner standing up while she did the dishes. In her own words, “I was the poster child for leaning in.” Until one day, she hit a breaking point. She got sick at work, went home… and never went back.

After a year of panic attacks, depression and insomnia, she launched her blog. She soon found that many other women were suffering the same fate of trying to do it all. She discovered that many of these women (68 percent) went so far as to have a “hospital fantasy” in which they hoped for a minor accident so they could be relieved from their to-do lists!

Alcorn notes that America may be the most hostile country for working parents of all income levels. Professionals are expected to travel for business and never unplug, causing incessant stress. It’s estimated that 60 percent of women are more likely to suffer anxiety, 70 percent will suffer from depression. They’re also more at risk for heart attacks and getting diabetes as a result of workplace stress.

Thing is, it’s not just working mothers who suffer from this; working fathers are also equally affected, if not more so. Men are now taking on more at home and subsequently are experiencing more work life stress, too. Alcorn describes, “We’re living in a half-changed world, where we’re expected to do our jobs as if we don’t have families, and raise our families as if we don’t have jobs.”

In a society that expects female workers to lean in, the resulting effect may be that these same overly worked (and overly stressed) working mother lean in… and then fall down. Alcorn suggests that leaning in is indeed the answer—but not to work. Instead, she recommends leaning in to parenting. Policy makers can lean in by providing initiatives like paid parental leave and paid sick leave—things most countries offer except the U.S.

Leaning in doesn’t end there. Working dads can also lean in by leaning in to their families. Employers can lean in by making it possible for employees to tailor their jobs to their lives. How? Through work flexibility. Many companies are experimenting with flex options and offering telecommuting to their workers, because creating an initiative for employees to work remotely costs almost nothing to implement, yet the gains are significant. Giving workers a flexible schedule increases productivity and morale, and decreases turnover. It’s not just good for health; it’s good for business.

Alcorn cites the example of the work-life balance that most workers in Sweden currently experience. In the past, Sweden had generous parental leave policies, but mostly women took advantage of it. Finally, dads were given one month of parental leave and encouraged to take it. When the working dads stayed home, they bonded with their babies, and after they returned to work, they took on some of the “mom jobs” at home. Meanwhile, moms returned to work a little sooner. The pay gap between men and women started to close. Employers saw that the work-life balance issue was an everyone issue, not just a working mom issue. The culture at work began to change with more flextime. Even the divorce rate went down.

Today, Alcorn is self-employed. While she doesn’t recommend that path for everyone, she does want workers to understand that most jobs can be compatible with their lives—if they make it so. If employees want to have a flexible schedule, they need to ask for it. Job seekers need to seek it out during job interviews and ask for it as part of the negotiations process, if the option is not already on the table. After all, flex can no longer be considered a workplace perk, but a necessity in order to create work-life balance and a happier, more productive overall workforce.

photo credit: thinkstockphotos.com