Family-friendly workplaces: the role of mental wellbeing

Newborn baby and Dad
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Emma Mamo
Head of Workplace Wellbeing
Mind
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Mind urges employers to create mentally healthy workplaces by tackling the causes of work-related stress and poor mental health at work, supporting members of staff experiencing a mental health problem, and promoting wellbeing for all employees.

Workplace wellbeing initiatives can benefit all employees, including parents with mental health problems.

Mental health problems can affect anyone, and one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year – most commonly depression and anxiety.

"Many and unique challenges"

When you consider the many and unique challenges associated with being a new parent - adjusting to such a major life change, sleep deprivation, the self-doubt that often accompanies caring for a newborn for the first time, or having to sacrifice your social life and hobbies - it’s not surprising that so many new mums and dads might struggle with their mental health, especially when they return to work.

Another source of poor mental health for new parents can be financial difficulties.

Childcare costs often make it hard for parents to make ends meet, even if they’re both earning a decent wage, unless they are in a rare and fortunate position that they have friends and/or family members willing and able to provide childcare for free while they’re at work.

Staff are more likely to be happy, healthy, loyal and productive if they work within a mentally healthy workplace.

Childcare Voucher Schemes can help. Offered by most employers, they allow working parents to purchase child care vouchers through salary sacrifice meaning they are exempt from Tax and National Insurance.

"Deemed incompetent"

Also, some research suggests that working mothers – but not fathers - are more likely to be deemed incompetent and judged more harshly for the quality of their work (Correll et al., 2007).

So there’s a huge role for line managers and HR professionals to play in ensuring working parents, especially mums, are protected from stigma and discrimination and given the opportunity to thrive and reach their potential at work.

Employers are beginning to take mental health at work more seriously, but most still have a way to go when it comes to tackling the causes of stress and poor mental health at work.

A 2014 Mind-commissioned YouGov poll of 1,250 workers in England and Wales revealed that only 50% of respondents said that their manager respects that they have a life outside work. 17% said that workplace stress had put a strain on their marriage or relationship with significant other and 11% said workplace stress had caused them to miss important events like birthdays or weddings.

Nearly one in four (24%) said that their employer had tried to contact them while they were on holiday.

17% said that workplace stress had put a strain on their marriage or relationship with significant other.

People with mental health problems, including parents, can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace. Having a mental health problem does not necessarily negatively affect someone’s performance at work, indeed, for employees living with bipolar disorder it’s likely that there will be peaks and troughs – including periods of prolific productivity. It’s really important that employers support members of staff experiencing a mental health problem.

An employer has a duty to make adjustments for any employee who has a disability that is covered by the Equality Act 2010.

This can include a mental health problem if it has a substantial, adverse, and long term effect on your normal day-to-day activities.

Can you make adjustments for employees?

Adjustments need not be large or expensive, they are typically things like changes to working hours, roles and/or responsibilities and/or working location.

It’s not just about employers’ legal obligation though – workplace wellbeing is part of being a responsible employer who wants to retain good staff by sending a message to them that they are valued.

This includes creating an environment where staff – including parents- feel able to talk openly about stress and poor mental health and know that if they do, they’ll be met with support and understanding.

Staff are more likely to be happy, healthy, loyal and productive if they work within a mentally healthy workplace, so it’s in employers’ interests to promote wellbeing at work.

Jenni's example

Jenni works part time and has a three year old daughter. She also lives with bipolar disorder. In terms of what employers should do to support working parents, she says – while it may seem obvious - flexibility is key.

“Flexible working is really the most helpful thing - both in terms of hours but also setting up employees to be able to work from home. Children get sick all the time and being able to attempt to work from home rather than taking a day off is completely invaluable.” 

Also important is social interaction and connecting with other parents.

“Being a parent can be really lonely at work. We have often had a sleepless night and done hours of childcare before we arrive at work. It would be really beneficial for employers to have some way of linking parents up in the workplace, like a forum where you could have a good moan or share work/life balance ideas. Similarly a “bring your child to work” day or some kind of special kids event – like a fundraising event or party could be a great way to make working parents feel really valued.

“Parents can also really miss out on the social aspect at work. If we’re lucky we can arrange childcare for special occasions but it’s impossible to pop in to social after work activities like pub visits, especially at short notice. Fortunately my team also arrange lots of sociable events during working hours – such as lunches - to ensure that I don’t feel I’m missing out too much.”

Returning from maternity or paternity leave can be really difficult, so phased returns and part time work can help make the transition easier, says Jenni.

“I was very lucky that I was able to start initially on two days per week. This made my return to work so much easier. I know from talking to other working Mums that many other employers have rejected requests for reduced hours. But it needs to be encouraged across all employers to help retain brilliant staff. 

“I cannot fault the flexi time scheme at work. I tend to build up hours and then leave an hour early as much as I can. I feel as though (within reason) we’re able to manage our own time which makes you feel much more in control. Being a parent is never predictable and knowing that I can take time back when I need to, often at short notice really helps.” 

Employers shouldn’t underestimate how valuable it is to offer part time work and job shares to working parents, including senior roles.

“In terms of career progression, I’m definitely stalled. More senior jobs are always full time (particularly management), so I feel as though the only way I could do such a job would be to condense full time hours into four days as I have seen others do.

“I’m very fortunate in my position that I have a freelancer who picks up the slack when my workload becomes unmanageable. I see myself as working in an unofficial job share (but would love if this was an actual jobshare!). There are times when I feel like my job is full time but condensed. When I end up working stupid hours (and working on my days off) I know I can claim the time back. The big problem is when important meetings or training falls on days that I don't work, I generally just have to do an extra day and find childcare at additional cost as it’s not flexible. I’ve been lucky but generally I don't think there are enough part time and/or jobshare opportunities out there.” 

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