The Great Collide: Children’s Mental Health and Employers’ Success

by Kenneth Cole, Founder, Mental Health Coalition and Marti Bledsoe Post, Executive Director, On Our Sleeves

In the third year of a pandemic that continues to disrupt every aspect of our lives, we cannot forget about those least able to take care of their own needs, or sometimes even express them — our children.

The pandemic’s impact on children goes deep into areas fundamental to their development, threatening access to in-person learning, time with their friends, childcare and health care — including mental health care.

An obvious, but poorly understood area, has been how parents juggle their children’s mental health concerns and their own needs, especially work. On the best days, the two frequently compete with one another in a zero-sum game. These days, it’s worse, and the stress it creates for parents inevitably becomes a challenge for their employers and our country’s overall productivity.

A new report by On Our Sleeves, the movement for children’s mental health created by Nationwide Children’s Hospital, sheds welcome light on the challenges facing parents and employers when children’s mental health suffers. Perhaps the most striking finding is how widespread the impact of children’s mental health challenges has been the past two years.

More than half (53%) of all parents reported missing work — being late, leaving early or taking a day off — at least once a month because they needed to deal with a child’s mental health. This is only slightly less (57%) than the percentage of parents whose work was interrupted to help children with remote learning.

Disrupted parents reported that work-related stress became harder to handle, it was harder to take pleasure in their work and some felt “hopeless” about finishing certain work tasks. One research participant summed it up best: “How is it possible to focus 100% of your attention on work when you know your child is struggling? Answer: it is not.”

For certain parents, like those in historically underrepresented groups or parents ages 40 and younger, the research suggests the problem is likely more concerning, while comfort levels with addressing it vary widely by culture and seniority levels in their roles.

This all leads to a “Great Collide” in the workplace, with employers’ workforce not able to be at 100% and employees who are parents not comfortable starting the conversation to ask their managers for help.

Despite the large number of impacted parents, only 20% reported talking to their managers about their challenges and 54% said they weren’t comfortable discussing mental health concerns at work. Despite this reticence, parents are open to receiving help.  Almost 90% saying they would access children’s mental health resources provided by their employers, even valuing such courses above others for their own mental health or fitness. With employees reluctant to start the conversation, employers need to take the lead, by making educational resources available, facilitating mental health activities at work and reinforcing that it’s ok to raise issues in confidence.

The mental health system in the United States needs additional work before it can provide the kinds of services needed to adequately serve the families who need it most, especially children. Throughout the past 50 years, we have known we need to act quickly and decisively by bringing together government leaders, the private sector and mental health researchers and advocates to address issues of parity and access to mental health services.

Never has this been truer than now.

Our organizations—the Mental Health Coalition and On Our Sleeves—are committed to improving the quality and availability of mental health resources for children’s and adults.  That starts with breaking down the archaic and counterproductive stigmas surrounding mental health so that people are no longer afraid to seek help nor advocate for it. The On Our Sleeves report does a good job of shining a bright light on the price paid by everyone when children’s mental health is left unaddressed. Like children, parents don’t always wear their thoughts and feelings on their sleeves, so it’s the job of enlightened, committed advocates—and employers committed to a healthy workforce—to find a way to break through the barriers to give children’s mental health a voice. The report’s extraordinary findings are a clarion call

Like a rock dropping into a pond, the ripples of children’s mental health challenges radiate quickly, creating impacts in places we might not expect, such as for employers. With a better understanding of what’s at stake and how to address it —and the will to act together — there’s no reason that our nation’s children cannot emerge from the pandemic with more resources at their disposal than before. It would be a legacy worth all our collective efforts to sound the alarm.