Parents’ mental health is at a breaking point: 3 steps for employers to lend critical support

Working parents have long represented one of the most vulnerable populations for employers. Millions in the United States are feeling the mental health impacts of life in a global pandemic, but the unprecedented pressure on working parents to balance responsibilities at work and at home is pushing this already at-risk group to a breaking point.

Cleo Chief Medical Officer Dr. Chitra Akileswaran, a practicing OB-Gyn, has been observing the impacts on her patients and Cleo members since the beginning of the pandemic. “COVID-19 is a test for what happens when we really have no safety net for a pretty big population of our workforce with no end in sight.”

In the last eight months, parents have had to balance working remotely, limited childcare options, managing remote learning at home, reduced access to medical care, financial stress, and relationship strains, all on top of ongoing concerns surrounding their family’s health and safety. The bulk of this strain is on women. Working mothers are taking on the majority of caregiving responsibilities and as a result are 2.5x more likely to report mental health challenges than working fathers. At Cleo, we’ve seen a 10x increase in inbound requests for support from members specifically concerning emotional support, managing uncertainty, and making decisions.

As parents navigate securing childcare and education, the list of challenges and uncertainties can feel near infinite. Parents cite health and safety concerns (34%) and financial impacts (24%) as major stressors in childcare decisions and as of September, 79% of working families still don’t have full access to childcare. Parents with young children aren’t the only ones feeling the impact. Anxiety disorders in pregnant women have increased more than 2x during the pandemic. These can lead to adverse effects in maternal health and birth outcomes.

All of this has major implications for employers. A study by the Annals of Family Medicine found that on average, employees that are depressed report missing up to 37% of their work or that their work time is impared due to health. Couple this with Cleo’s findings that working parents are losing an average of 5.9 hours per week to stress and anxiety specifically related to COVID-19, and we begin to see the real economic risk of non-action for employers. We know that employees that don’t feel supported are twice as likely to make a career change than those who do. Further, our State of Working Parents Study found that 27% of working parents are considering finding a new company that better supports their dual role as a parent and a professional, nearly twice the rate as in April at the start of the pandemic. The costs of attrition, presenteeism, and absenteeism are all high.

Employers are in a unique position to fill in the gaps in mental health care. Here are three steps companies can take to support the mental health of their working parent population:

1. Survey your employees to identify their needs

No two employees or families are exactly alike. The best way to determine the right course of action is to understand the specific challenges your parent community is dealing with. This will help you determine exactly what benefits, support, or cultural solutions will best address the needs of your employees.

We’ve created a sample survey to get you started. Questions can include ages of children, current childcare solution, and what services would best support them.

2. Adapt your culture to support parents’ mental health and model behavior

To support employees during this insanely difficult year, leading with empathy is key. Where, when, and how work gets done is shifting, so make it clear across the company that this is expected and okay.

Create all-company time blocks for employees to take mental health breaks. Help parents reduce anxiety by normalizing children and other interruptions during video calls. Cultural support requires company-wide commitment and leadership is critical to this change. Ensure executives and managers are respecting, enforcing, and modeling the cultural changes that will support parents.

3. Create flexible solutions as needs and available options continue to change

From your survey you will likely learn that the needs of working parents are wide-ranging. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Some may need immediate in-home childcare, others may need education support.

Seek out holistic solutions like Cleo Marketplace that provide employers the flexibility they need to support diverse family needs. Other flexible solutions include childcare stipends, additional time off, flexible work schedules, or employee resource groups. Cleo helps its members navigate all the benefits their company offers to find the best solution for their family.