How Employers Can Support the Mental Health of Parents as They Return to Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear just how vulnerable working parents are. Juggling work from home, in-home schooling and child care, and their own self care seems like an insurmountable challenge, and we’re hearing that the pressures are taking their toll.

Experts from Cleo and Lyra Health recently participated in a webinar to discuss how to help working parents and their families cope with stress and anxiety as they prepare for the uncertain weeks and months ahead.

Watch the webinar on demand now.

The panel included Renee Schneider, Ph.D., VP of Clinical Quality, Lyra Health, Rebekah Wheeler, MPH, Certified Nurse Midwife & Lead Cleo Guide, Cleo, and Amy Tucker, Perinatal Mental Health Specialist and Cleo Guide, Cleo. These experts gave specific tips on how to support expecting parents and parents with young children and help them navigate their children’s emotional needs during this pandemic and the transition back to school. Below is a recap of the discussion.

How Are Working Parents Feeling the Strain?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear just how vulnerable working parents are. Juggling work from home, in-home schooling and childcare, and their own self care seems like an insurmountable challenge, and the pressures are taking their toll. In a recent Cleo member survey, more than 50% of respondents said they were without childcare, and that either one or both parents were sharing childcare responsibilities. It’s no surprise then that 52% feel that their productivity is 75% or less than usual, and that 25% feel that their productivity is less than 50% of usual.

Now, as some working parents prepare to transition out of shelter-in-place measures after working from home, they face mounting concerns about child care, children’s school transitions, financial stability, changing birth and postpartum plans, and more. These create additional stress and worry, potentially leading to short- and long-term mental health consequences. “In fact, 74% of U.S. mothers say they feel mentally worse since the pandemic began, according to a survey by motherhood lifestyle brand Motherly. The report, which gathered responses from more than 3,000 millennial moms between March 9 and April 23, found that 97% of moms between the ages of 24 and 39 say they feel burned out at least some of the time, with the pandemic only making things worse,” according to CNBC.

That’s in stark contrast to previous research. “In 2018, parents were actually less likely to be experiencing mental distress than those without children. But by the end of April 2020, parents were more likely to be in distress than their childless peers,”according to a study by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge. What had been an acute problem is now chronic, with shelter-in-place orders heightening stress and anxiety for all parents, and with communities of color being particularly impacted.

What Can Parents Do Now to Cope with This New Normal?

At Cleo, we have seen a large increase in requests for support and engagement with Cleo Guides. We’re also seeing new parents experiencing much more strain than normal, up to one year postpartum. While becoming a parent is already a huge transition in terms of balancing work, coping with a new identity, and massive changes in day-to-day routines, the pressure is now more acute. The experience has completely changed from what was expected because parents and friends are not able to be there to help. Unknowns such as changes in hospital policies and the fear of COVID-19 has led to more pressure on expecting and new parents.Our Guides highly recommend new parents make a postpartum plan that includes a couple weeks of leave together, followed by alternating partners on leave in order to maximize time together with the baby.

The idea of grief and amount of grief that can come with having a baby is hardly ever talked about. New parents can long for and mourn their past selves, identities, and bodies. The pandemic adds an extra layer of complexity, so pausing to understand this idea and being okay with the fact that it’s perfectly normal to feel two contradictory emotions at the same time — thrilled and sad — is especially helpful.

Our mental health panel emphasized that it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on first. In other words, parents should seek to reduce their own stress, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness before they can tackle those challenges with their children. While the normal guidelines still apply — eat right, exercise, get quality sleep — it’s also important that parents have time to themselves as well ways to connect with other parents.

That might come in the form of a 15-minute walk or just checking in with oneself. Because working from home means there’s no way to decompress from work, something many often did during the commute, we need to build that in. Shut down the laptop, deep breathe for a couple of minutes, or get a drink of water. Anything that you find replenishing will do. The same advice applies to partners. There is no parenting playbook for a pandemic, and we are all finding out what works best for us as individuals and families.

How Can Parents Help Children with their Emotional Needs?

Typically, children under five may be having a hard time with changes in routine and expectations. It’s important to acknowledge that developmentally normal meltdowns are to be expected — and may be entirely unrelated to COVID-19. The job as parents is to not introduce additional concerns about the larger environment or expect that children are even aware of a pandemic. For school-age children, the job is to not minimize concerns, generalize, or whitewash in any way. A parent cannot say with certainty that there won’t be any germs at school when it reopens. But they can validate feelings, share their own, and ensure children know it’s safe to feel what they’re feeling, even if that feeling comes out in the form of a meltdown in how a sandwich was sliced. That’s a teachable moment to get at the heart of what’s really going on. Validation helps teach emotional regulation and enables children to communicate what they are really feeling and how to cope.

How Can Employers Ease the Burden on Their Working Parents?

What’s needed now is a sense of transparency, safety, and trust building within working teams and employers understanding that all employees, not just parents, need help adjusting.

Employers should plan a methodical, slow transition back to the office, or back to work postpartum, and build in extra time for people to process their emotions and needs during this transition. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the more employees are pushed, the more productivity suffers and companies risk burning out their employees. Companies should review and reassess their sick leave and PTO policies, bonus structures, and performance review guidelines to let employees know they understand it’s a difficult time for everyone.

Another way to build safety and trust is to hold space to ask people how they are feeling. That means regular emotional well-being check-ins. It’s helpful to identify and name emotions, and verbalize their impact. Doing so regularly makes it okay for people to speak up and ask for help.

Resources & Next Steps

As a mental health benefits provider, Lyra is offering a comprehensive return-to-work guide on how managers can help their team’s mental health as workplaces reopen. Go to for more information.

We at Cleo also have a future of work section on our website, full of blog posts, webinars, and helpful resources. In addition, Cleo is offering a fast-track product with six months of support for new and expecting parents. And, we have recently introduced Cleo Care powered by UrbanSitter to help parents get back to work.We’d love to show you how Cleo can help support your working families with 1:1 guidance from trusted experts, evidence-based programs that drive results, and a personalized app with every family benefit in one place. Please register for a demo today.