HR Management & Compliance, Talent

The Unprecedented Mental Health Crisis Facing Working Parents in America—And How Employers Can Help

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on us all, but it has created an increasingly challenging environment for working parents in America. Working parents, many of whom are now indefinitely working from home, have spent the last year learning to balance remote learning and child care without the support of loved ones due to social distancing. The overarching stress of an international health crisis has made prioritizing mental well-being difficult, too. For these parents, the line between their personal and professional lives is more blurred than ever, exacerbating a balancing act that weighs especially heavily on working moms.

New research from Humantel released by Cigna suggests that “working moms and working dads recognize the importance of self-care and mental health but often struggle to prioritize it, citing lack of capacity and resources.” The COVID-19 pandemic has made prioritizing mental well-being even more challenging for working parents, which, in turn, can have a major impact on U.S. businesses. Self-care and positive mental well-being are associated with positive emotions like happiness, love, hope, and strength, which impact health, job satisfaction, productivity, and optimism about the future. The results from this study suggest that mental health is something employers must understand and take action to promote in order to help working parents thrive both at work and at home.

Working Parents’ Mental Well-Being and Gender Disparities

The Humantel study found that only one-fifth of working moms and one-third of working dads are satisfied with their mental well-being. The statistics on professional satisfaction and optimism are similarly troubling:

  • Only 22% of working moms and 34% of working dads strongly agree that they feel extremely satisfied with aspects of their professional life.
  • Only 29% of working moms and 49% of working dads strongly agree that they feel extremely optimistic about their future.

Professional satisfaction and optimism about the future are critical in achieving one’s full potential both personally and professionally, so these results are alarming, given they demonstrate an overall dissatisfaction and lack of mental well-being among working parents. In addition, the disparities between working moms and working dads confirm what has been widely reported in recent months: Women have been disproportionately affected.

Unfortunately, working parents also face several barriers that prevent them from making their mental health a priority. These barriers include work responsibilities, limited money and time, and family/friend responsibilities. Working moms are also less likely than working dads to feel they have the resources and support they need to address their mental well-being easily and confidently.

  • Only 52% of working moms and 59% of working dads report they intend to focus on mental self-care over the next few months, and far fewer have a plan in place to do so.
  • Only 32% of working moms and 40% of working dads report they have the resources they need to take care of their mental well-being, and fewer think it will be easy for them to do so.

Help Parents Plan to Take Care of Their Mental Health

Clearly, the mental well-being of working parents is an issue that should be concerning to employees and employers alike. The good news is there are steps employers can take to help support their employees who may be struggling. By prioritizing mental health and self-care among working parents, employers can strengthen resiliency; improve job satisfaction and productivity; and, most importantly, bolster overall health and well-being.

Below are some tips to help working parents plan to take care of their mental health:

  • Reach out to a professional: Make sure employees know how to access behavioral health through their employee assistance program or their health benefits. Virtual behavioral healthcare providers like Ginger and Talkspace make it easy to access the care they need when they need it.
  • Harness the power of music: Working parents report listening to music as their top self-care activity, and research has shown that music can affect the autonomic nervous system in a way that helps people reduce and manage stress. Encourage employees to find time to listen to some uplifting tunes throughout the workday, or even work it into your meetings.
  • Have open and honest conversations: One of the best ways to make a difference is to create space where employees feel comfortable sharing their struggles and needs and where they feel heard. Once their challenges are out in the open, you can start working to address them, so listen and engage in constructive conversations.
  • Be a resource: Make sure your employees know about different resources available to them. Cigna provides various resources to aid in mental health education and support.

As the world begins to move post-pandemic, mental health should remain at the center of our conversations, especially for working parents who now look to balance returning to the workplace and navigating their children’s return to in-person learning. While we all look forward to “normal,” this sudden shift back to the way we used to work will continue to cause concern, stress, and anxiety for many. Employers can be a source of stability and support at this critical moment.

Dr. Stuart Lustig is a national medical director for behavioral health at Cigna.