Is it up to employers to help parents whose children have mental health issues?

Do employers have to help the growing number of parents who are managing their children’s mental health problems and, if so, how?

Teenager wearing a blue hoodie looks to camera


‘Breathe’. ‘Take each moment as it comes – one foot in front of the other.’ These seem to be my catchphrases of late. Much of parenting involves problem-solving – even if the fixes are only very much temporary. Often these days the problems seem to be more of a psychological nature and those are much harder to address because you always run the risk of saying the exact wrong thing.

On the one hand young people seem to want you to help; on the other, anything you suggest is roundly rejected [at least initially. There is always a hope that some of it sinks in]. This terrain is particularly perilous when it comes to relationships – or exams.

A recent Deloitte mental health report showed how many parents are worried about their children’s mental health and how this is impacting their own ability to focus at work. Some 46% of the over 3,000 parents questioned for Deloitte’s fourth annual mental health report said they are concerned about their children’s mental health and half of these say it impacts their own performance at work. The report’s estimate of the cost to employers  – £8bn annually – takes into account parents and carers taking time off work to care for their children, the impact on their performance and decisions to leave their roles.

I’m not surprised, having lived with teenagers for many years and negotiated everything from bullying at school to bereavement. It can be almost impossible to focus on work if you have a young person who refuses to go to school because they are having panic attacks or are feeling extreme anxiety. If you have to leave them at home alone because they won’t go to school you spend the whole day worrying about what they are thinking, how they are and what they might do. It’s nearly impossible to concentrate fully.

A relative managed to keep going in her job as a teacher while her daughter was transferred between several psychiatric units, with the threat that she would be moved many miles away. Every night she would go and see her daughter and try to keep her going. She would be interrupted at work with emergency calls or having to got to meetings and basically fight for her daughter to get the treatment she needed. This went on for months.

I was asked earlier in the week if the mental health of young people should be an issue for employers. I do feel for employers because many are struggling with economic uncertainty and all the other challenges of the day. Should they also have to take on the whole panoply of social challenges facing us today?

The thing is that, like it or not, employers are part of society and we all have to work together. Parents need support. The issues they are negotiating are enormous and beyond their ability to address in many cases. A report from the Royal Foundation Business Taskforce this week underlines the links between early years education and support and economic development. The same is also true when it comes to young people’s mental health. Young people are the workforce of the future. We all have a stake in their wellbeing.

While a lot of the infrastructural things to do with mental health are, of course, down to the Government – funding mental health support in schools or mental health treatment, for instance – all too often there are huge waiting lists and schools just don’t have the resources so parents are left to deal with what can be extremely worrying situations. Employers are part of a whole range of ways society as a whole needs to respond to this challenge.

Often what is needed from employers is understanding and empathy rather than expensive initiatives. Understanding the kind of issues their employees are facing and finding ways to help them manage it all in a way that works for both employer and employee is a retention issue. Making things more difficult and stressful only drives people away. That means redoubling engagement efforts and offering flexibility where possible so parents can, for instance, flex their hours/work from home if they are finding it difficult to get children into school. Having parent forums where parents can discuss and share experiences and get access to expert help is also helpful. Often simple things and asking parents what would help make the most difference.

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