How being a parent affects mental health
Having a child, or bringing one up, can be challenging. As well as affecting routine, finances and career, there can be significant impacts on parents’ mental health. At the most severe scale, the World Health Organization estimates that about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. During the postpartum period, about 85% of women experience some type of mood disturbance according to research by MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health. And it’s not just mothers – a large study found that 1 in 10 fathers are also affected.
The reasons are many.
A change in hormones and surges of cortisol with a decrease of oxytocin can shift the chemical balance and either trigger poor mental health or exacerbate a parent’s mental illness if pre-existing, and symptoms such as anxiety, crying and restlessness. Good quality sleep is highly correlated with better mental health as it is a restorative activity. Astonishingly, people with insomnia are 10 times more likely to experience clinically significant levels of depression and 17 times more likely to experience clinically significant levels of anxiety, found researchers at the University of North Texas. And sleep can be hard to come by not only with a newborn, but children of any age. Add to this a change in identity as people move towards being known as a parent, rather than for their job, or as a partner, and an individual may feel anxious about who they are.
There is also a lack of support for people who do not fall into traditional family structures, which can be difficult for single parents for example. Anxiety around being a good enough parent can be stressful, and a sense of helplessness can pervade – no one teaches you how to be a parent. And children are expensive – financial worries are having a particularly big impact on many.
Many people found that the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly challenging, especially when it came to impact on the workplace. Remote work, isolation and homeschooling all took a toll on parents and employees mental health. Although some organisations put in strategies around stress management and work/life balance, it was still a challenge that has not yet been overcome. Whereas employees without caring responsibilities may find themselves able to relax after work or enjoy hobbies and socializing, parents often find that their focus is their children, which can lead to burnout if there is not enough downtime. Parenting is a full-time job, so if people are experiencing mental illnesses they may not get support as their time is taken up with children. They take on the practical and emotional load of their family, which can cause excessive stress.
How does mental health of parents affect them in the workplace?
Our blog features numerous resources on mental health in the workplace, and for parents, it is no different – except they may be more at risk or less able to take time to get help. Lack of sleep can cause poor concentration and for productivity to decline. A need to be seen to be working hard because they know they need to be a provider for the family might increase presenteeism. If anxiety or depression, or other mental disorders are present, cognitive function such as problem-solving skills may decline or making errors might become more common. They may end up having to miss work due to poor health, which has a negative impact on self-esteem as well as team morale.
Supporting parents (indeed all employees) has numerous benefits such as improved productivity, better decision-making, increased creativity, and employee satisfaction and retention.
8 ways employers can support parents’ mental health
1. Foster a supportive workplace culture
A work environment where people are comfortable to bring their whole self, and that is psychologically safe, will benefit all employees, not just those with children. Allow people to speak about their child over lunch, and find positive ways to include parents in social activities such as having something over lunch rather than drinks going late into the evening for example.
Having an open-door policy where employees feel comfortable to discuss their mental health, and any stress or challenges they may be facing is key.
2. Business leaders lead by example
Business leaders shouldn’t promote a culture of long hours or presenteeism. Excessively long hours aren’t good for any employees, but for parents and adults with caring responsibilities once they leave the workplace or switch off their computer can be even more problematic, as there is still plenty more to be done in their life. Finish on time, encourage employees to take a lunch break, and allow time for people to exercise regularly or practice mindfulness. Good health in the workplace starts from leaders and senior management.
3. Use project management tools
Supporting mental health encompasses ways of working, as well as wellbeing activities. One way to manage stress is to provide people with clear tasks that need doing and milestones for achieving them. This can alleviate job stress as it reduces a sense of overwhelm and enables people to tick things off, giving a sense of achievement.
4. Flexible working for parents
More and more organizations are adopting flexible working hours and a hybrid model. These can help health in the workplace for parents and employees as they enable people to work when they are at their best and around other factors such as childcare or commitments. The benefit is that businesses get employees who are focused and concentrating, rather than distracted by other things. Hybrid working can also help minimize the need for childcare, which can be expensive – financial worries are one of the biggest drivers of mental health issues.
5. Psychological safety
Make it a policy that people can speak about their own mental health or mental health concerns without fear of judgment. Companies where there is a mental health Employee Resource Group, or open door policies and that actively promote mental health are much more likely to have a mentally healthy workforce as people know that any mental health issues or mental health challenges won’t be ignored or shamed. Psychological safety is one of the key drivers of a mentally healthy workplace.
6. Employee assistance program
There are numerous employee assistance programs and behavioral health solutions available that can help with mental health in the workplace, as well as the more traditional physical health. Wysa for Employers, Wysa’s complete workplace solution, addresses the full spectrum of behavioral health needs that occur across and outside of the organization, through organizational strategies alongside self-care support.
7. Mental health resources and support
Provide resources such as Wysa that help people with a range of mental health conditions and can support workplace factors such as stress management. Wysa offers workshops, group meditations, and education, as well as CBT guided self-help resources and signposting to mental health services for any SOS crises. AI intelligently listens to user needs and directs them to the right resources at the right time, with 24/7 real-time support, so people can look after their own mental health. What marks it out as different from other workplace wellness programs is that it is clinically validated and monitored by psychologists, and employers get analytics so that they can get an overview of employee mental health in their organization and any particular mental health challenges that need addressing.
8. Set boundaries between work and family time
It is hugely important to be able to get time to oneself, and work-life balance is key. Provide time management and organizational strategies to help people get their work done in the typical working hours, so they can enjoy family life once the working day is done. Company leaders should avoid emailing out of work hours where possible, to allow people to manage the competing demands of work and family life and enjoy the time they have at home. Often rest and recuperation are as equally important when it comes to a person’s ability to work as being in the office is, as it allows for more focus and concentration during working hours.
Being a working parent can be hard, but company leaders can help support employees with their mental health by being flexible, supportive and understanding, allowing employees to prioritize their own mental health and physical health around work and family so that they flourish.