Maternal mental health problems are very prevalent, yet few employers mention them in...read more
Many parents are supporting their children with mental health issues. Flexibility and understanding from employers can make all the difference, says one mum.
Sarah Hurst’s husband died in 2019, four months after a shock cancer diagnosis. Her children were 10, eight and five at the time. She speaks to workingmums.co.uk about the mental health issues associated with sudden bereavement and Covid and why flexible working and an empathetic workplace are vital.
workingmums.co.uk: Can you outline the mental health problems your children have experienced over the last few years?
Sarah Hurst: My children have all handled this differently, requiring different support in and out of school. They have experienced heightened sensory issues, anxiety and some school refusal due to the ongoing impact of their bereavement closely followed by the pandemic. While they are incredibly resilient, and mostly cope with life very well, there are times when their loss has a greater effect on their mental health, and grief can be an ongoing issue for children, particularly when it is parental or sibling loss.
workingmums.co.uk: Are you getting any support for your child or are you managing it alone?
SH: I mostly manage their wellbeing alone – but their schools have been very supportive. When at primary, they all had access to a pastoral support worker, and a counsellor when needed, which took place in school time. The secondary school has provided some mentoring and pastoral support outside school hours as well as during. My youngest has needed some additional therapy, recommended by the school via CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services], but sourced and arranged by myself – because these services are woefully underfunded.
WMs: What about support for you as a parent?
SH: I have found the past five years really difficult, from providing nursing care to my dying husband, to continuing to financially support my family, while we were all grieving, and then experiencing lockdown as a solo working parent. I was able to access to counselling via my employee assistance programme [EAP] earlier this year which made support for myself financially viable, which otherwise may have been a struggle.
WMs: Is this affecting the hours you can work?
SH: School refusal in children struggling with their mental wellbeing makes being physically in the office a challenge. Fortunately, my children are usually in school, but my eldest does get depressed sometimes, and overwhelmed with feelings of pointlessness, which makes it very hard to get him in – especially now he is an older teen. If I had to be permanently office- or site-based this could impact my working hours. I also prefer to work part time because being present allows me to see wellbeing changes in my children before they become more serious, and enables me to easily communicate with the school, or be present at any pastoral meetings. Being a solo parent means there isn’t anyone else to pick up the slack, and having a child with anxiety does mean that your presence at school events becomes more significant to them – but there’s nobody else to be there. Working full time or full time on location would be extremely challenging because it could be further detrimental to their wellbeing, which would be a vicious cycle.
WMs: Is your employer understanding?
SH: My employer has been extremely understanding, and even pre-pandemic offered a working from home day for all employees, regardless of carer status. We now have the option to be flexible – allowing me to be office-based for my own wellbeing – but also not adhering to rigid site requirements. This allows all staff to find a good work life balance, but is particularly helpful for working parents. My employer has shown understanding when I have had to change plans at the last minute to accommodate a struggling child, and this has made it possible to work additional hours around taking my youngest to therapy appointments. I don’t feel as if I am letting the team down because my work gets done, and to a good standard, but I also have the chance to offer parental support to my children when they need me. This has meant that I have stayed in this job longer than I originally anticipated, because I don’t know if I would find this understanding elsewhere, and it has been absolutely vital to my family.
WMs: Is it affecting your own mental health?
SH: I think the understanding of my workplace has stopped me experiencing additional stress – I do find life challenging sometimes, with the pressure of work and solo parenting, and the cost of living etc. bringing additional issues to families across the board. Access to counselling via my EAP has been helpful too. It is hard helping your children to navigate life challenges you didn’t think they would have to.
WMs: What would you like to see in terms of help?
SH: The flexibility that workplaces have learned from the pandemic should offer all employees with caring responsibilities options in their working pattern, which can make these life challenges – unexpected or otherwise – easier to deal with. At some point most people will experience the struggle of balancing caring responsibility and workplace responsibility whether they are parents or not, because everyone has a family – and so extending understanding in the work environment should be the standard, not the exception. A manager once said to me that it is always beneficial to ensure employee wellbeing, because if an occasional mental health day for an employee can help them feel balanced and healthy, it can prevent issues getting exacerbated and resulting in that employee needing a longer leave of absence after breaking down, which has a far greater adverse affect on the business and other staff members, than a regular scheduled day off to look after themselves, as well as a far greater adverse affect on the person concerned. I think this is such an important attitude to have in the workplace.