Business Solutions: Working Parents, Summer, and Special Needs Kids

Spring has arrived and the end of the school year is within sight.  Most kids are counting down the days while most working parents are breaking a sweat trying to cobble together two-plus months of camps, vacations, occasional day-trips, and childcare, hoping their plans on paper work in practice.  Add a child, teen, or young adult with special needs and the challenges intensify considerably.

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

If you’re an employer or a manager, here are three ways you can offer support:

FLEXIBILITY RULES

1. Children have needs over the summer, and without school providing a predictable daily schedule, parents struggle.  Add a child with autism or other special needs, and the challenges intensify.  Some children qualify for Extended School Year services, yet they're typically less than a full-day and almost never run from the last day of school in June to the first day of school in late August/early September. 

SOLUTION:  Provide flexible work hours if not already offered, offer parents remote work opportunities, and allow for vacation and personal time to be used in hours or partial days vs. full days.  And be flexible with last-minute and crisis needs that arise.  If your parental leave policies need evaluation, now is the time to do it.  Companies that are aware and responsive to these needs are those that retain working parents.

PRIVACY HELPS

2. Children with special needs who are attending camp and other summer programs often have needs that require parent assistance.  And it's not the "I forgot my swimsuit" type of need either.  Therapies, tutoring, and other supports continue throughout the summer, putting extra pressure on already stressed parents with exceptional caregiving responsibilities when it comes to juggling work, appointments, transportation and more.

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SOLUTION:  Allow parents access to a specially-designated office or private space for them to make telephone calls, schedule a video conference with camp personnel or support staff, schedule appointments, and confer with doctors, clinicians, and others as needed.  It can reduce time away from the office and provides employees with the privacy they need.  Plus, it demonstrates that the company understands the stressors involved with exceptional caregiving responsibilities, not only on a daily basis but also during the challenging summer months as well.

SUPPORTS MATTER

3. Children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, or similar needs require structure and predictability, and the summer months are often when this is difficult to achieve and maintain.  Parents prepare as best as possible, yet situations develop that require them to adapt and adjust quickly.  A particular camp may not work.  A childcare provider may leave.  A therapist may request additional evaluations.  These situations mean that employees need time and resources to help. 

SOLUTION:  Communicate to all employees that their EAP is available to assist with issues that relate to summer needs, whether locating a last-minute child care provider or addressing stress-related issues.  Providing employees with access to resources to help them manage their children’s needs as well as their own work/life issues is key to employee retention.  And if employee assistance or work/life programs or services are not yet available, now is the time to start.

One of the things we consistently hear from working parents is that they need more support and assistance, whether managing their children's needs or understanding how to navigate through school.  And these needs are year-round, often intensifying over the summer months as planning for September begins well before this school year ends. 

Employers play a pivotal role, not only in creating family-friendly workplaces, but in recognizing that many working parents have needs that are not so apparent...or even discussed, and that go way beyond infancy.  Offering flexibility and supports to parents throughout the year, especially over the summer months, can make all the difference in helping top performing employees remain on the job.

The Real Truth About Parental Leave

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

I can't say enough about all the recent attention regarding parental leave and the companies expanding opportunities for new mothers and fathers to spend critical time with their newborns. 

Recognizing the importance of new parents being able to bond with their children speaks volumes...about the fact that families matter in our society and that companies are focusing on establishing family-friendly cultures.  All good stuff (and smart business) and steps that are long overdue, a comment I can comfortably make having been in the work/life arena since the late 90s and can see where progress has been made.

And while more companies are now providing paid parental leave, a critically important workplace benefit, the truth is that there are millions of working parents whose parental leave needs are not being met.  Or even addressed.  Those with elementary-aged, teens, or college-aged children.  And while this isn't meant to be a comparison, anyone who thinks managing a child during infancy is the same as raising a child or teen struggling in school or life isn't looking at parenting and the needs of working parents realistically.  Each age and stage has its challenges and for many parents, sleepless nights and gray hair come with it.  But opening the lens -- and discussion -- to the truth means recognizing that the needs of working parents don't stop at several months.  Or at age 5.

There is nothing more important than establishing a solid foundation for a parent and child during the early years.  I could barely stand to leave my child as a newborn or toddler myself, and I was self-employed at the time so didn't have the restrictions and limitations that many parents face.  No question...these were glorious years, yet we cannot be short-sighted nor can we forget that babies and toddlers grows into children and young adults whose needs become as complex as they are.

As every parent will tell you, parenting is lifelong and the challenges intensify as our children get older.  The issues facing kids today are nothing like they were when we were growing up, and this requires parents to be more...involved, engaged, vigilant, accessible...present.  All we need to do is look at the numbers of 8, 15 and 22-year-olds struggling with autism, depression, ADHD, cyberbullying, anxiety and more, and the facts are clear.

I applaud every company moving toward or already providing paid parental leave.  And those offering on-site childcare, maternity massages, lactation rooms, and more are surely adding to supports being provided.  Yet companies need to recognize that parenting and the needs of working parents are for many years vs. months or a few short years.  Unless and until this lens opens all the way, we're only seeing a small part of a much larger picture and are sorely missing the mark.  The truth is that parental leave for new parents is important.  For veteran parents, it's essential.

It's True...Working Women Are Mothers Too

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

If you're a woman who works outside of the home and a mother as well, you get it in spades.  If not, it's time to. 

Women are more than 50% of the workforce.  And many of these same women are also mothers, raising children.  Problem is, the business world doesn't seem to fully understand what this means.  Yet.

There are some areas where businesses are starting to listen and beginning to understand -- wage equality, paid family leave, and the push for more women in leadership positions.  All important issues, not only for women but for our society as a whole.  

And most of us would agree that work/life issues as they impact working mothers (and fathers) are "at the table" today in many business discussions.  Steps forward.  Yet particularly for working mothers, the steps aren't far enough. 

The realities are that millions of working mothers are unable to achieve and maintain any modicum of work flexibility and many fail to take or use their full maternity leave.  Many are being challenged in terms of their commitment to their job when a need arises regarding their children (and make no mistake about it...these "needs" continue for 21+ years).  And still others - and there are more than is known - are being forced, often in subtle but powerful ways, to choose between their careers/jobs and being a parent. 

I don't know anyone who would want to face these kinds of choices.

Let's think about a few things:

Do companies truly believe that it's still okay, in 2018, for such struggles to exist for working mothers?   Would those in senior leadership accept the same for their wives, daughters, or granddaughters?  And yes, I realize that women can be the ones exerting this pressure too.

Do companies think choosing motherhood means that their education and experience becomes an afterthought or that the time they've spent investing in and creating their careers suddenly has no meaning?  Or value?

Do companies not understand the big picture and think that the time (measured in years) working mothers spend raising and instilling values and qualities in their children - the same ones companies want in their future employees ... things like integrity, honesty, respect and kindness - happens in only a brief few months?  Or by age 5?

There are firms developing career reentry initiatives to help working mothers return to the workforce after spending "x" number of years raising their children.  And recommendations are now seeing the light of day for how to address a gap in a resume when it relates to parenting.   Why is stating that raising the next generation is something to be ashamed of, to excuse, or to hide?  Since when did raising a child equate to something to apologize for?  What messages are we giving and being forced to accept? 

Working women who are mothers deserve to have their abilities and their needs supported, both as parents and employees.  And this happens when "family-friendly" companies as defined by their culture and behaviors up and down the organization resonate with every working mother no matter their position, title or role.  Policies are great, but don't replace attitudes and actions.

For those companies truly embracing working mothers and not asking or expecting an explanation or apology about their life choices or how they've spent or spend their time, hats off.  And for those who aren't there yet, it's okay...we aren't going anywhere and our voices will continue to be heard.

 

A HERCULEAN TASK – A PODCAST WITH DEBRA SCHAFER

A HERCULEAN TASK – A PODCAST WITH DEBRA SCHAFER

THE WORKLIFE HUB

Debra Schafer, the founder and CEO of Education Navigation, and the 2012 winner of the Rising Star Award of the WorldatWork Alliance for Work/Life Progress imparts important advice on employees with a child with special needs.



Parental Leave ... Time For Parents To Be Parents

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

Could it be that we’re finally at a tipping point when it comes to parental leave?  I’m almost afraid to ask the question, but it’s long overdue. 

Supporting the needs of employees who are also parents is simply smart business.  Not only does it reduce costs (e.g. recruiting/replacement, absenteeism), but companies seem to forget a critical point when evaluating their support for (or objection to) paid leave and similar programs -- working parents are raising the next generation of employees, so doesn’t it make sense to give these children the benefit of parents who can be fully-present? 

I’ve been saying this for years…no working parent should have to choose between being a good employee and a good parent.  And many have had to make this choice for far too long.

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

Considering the fact that we rank along with Oman and Papua New Guinea as one of only three countries that does not provide paid parental leave, to say that the respect and support for working parents has been lacking would be a serious understatement.  Employees who are essentially juggling two full-time jobs, who excel at multi-tasking and problem-solving (two key competencies companies seek), and who are raising their children while helping to keep their companies profitable.  If I wasn't one myself, I'd be shaking my own head in amazement. 

There's no better way for companies to truly "walk the talk" than by recognizing the needs and providing supports for working parents over the lifecycle of their children's lives.  Some of these needs (e.g. raising a child with autism) are more complex, yet company support remains integral to retaining these top employees.  And this begins by providing parents the quality time they need with their children from the start.

Enter Intel’s new benefit - “bonding leave” - which provides employees (Moms and Dads alike) with eight weeks of paid leave to be with their families.  Add this to the 13 paid weeks that new mothers can take anytime within 12 months of their child’s birth, adoption, or foster care placement.  The result?  A company that gets it.

Whether it’s called parental leave, bonding leave, or anything else, if it allows working parents the time they and their children need to become what we want every family to be - a strong unit - without the paycheck worry, let’s call it anything we want as long as the end results are the same.

-Debra I. Schafer, CEO  

Trust Me...It's A Crisis

I've always struggled with numbers but not this one... From the CDC comes this statistic - 1 in 50 children under the age of 17 holds an autism diagnosis.  Even for me, someone who has worked with parents of children with autism for years and suspected for quite some time that even the most recent statistic of 1 in 88 children was low, seeing this in print was simply startling.

Ask anyone whose life has been touched by autism and they'll tell you that it changes everything.  It strains marriages and finances.  Overwhelms resources and time.  Shifts priorities and plans.  Every day, in every possible way, autism overtakes life and the expression ..."let me count the ways" doesn't even scratch the surface in terms of the impact an autism spectrum disorder has on parents, families and well beyond.  Trust me, I know.

At a time when school budgets are being slashed and families are truly hurting by an aching economy, these numbers equate to a huge wake-up call for those who may have been napping.  The need for early intervention services is critical as the earlier supports and services are secured, the greater likelihood that the child can make and sustain progress.  The need for broader and more complex supports for teens has never been greater with social deficits and bullying defining a huge part of life for high school students.  And the need for college-level support is enormous, as the expectations and freedom that accompany the foray into young adult independence brings with it enormous risks.  Trust me, I know.

Working parents have the greatest challenges and if both parents are employed full-time outside of the home or if it's a single parent household, all bets are off.  Therapies, evaluations, research, school meetings, crisis situations...the strain on working parents and their time, finances, and health are beyond what employers and colleagues understand or even recognize. And as I say ad nauseum...behind every child with an autism spectrum disorder is a parent (or two parents) of a child with an autism spectrum disorder.  Trust me, I know.

Autism is complex and multi-faceted, leaving even the most "on" parents buckling under the strain.   Parents find themselves leaving jobs because any hope of work/life balance is greatly compromised if not impossible.  Parents find themselves on Google at 3 a.m. or spending weekends sifting through books and journals.  Parents find themselves remortgaging their homes, borrowing from family members, and altering their way of life beyond what those on the outside could fathom.   Trust me, I know.

Autism is a crisis.  Plain and simple.  It was a crisis five years ago and is even moreso today.  And while many are researching causes and developing new therapies, the reality is that exploding numbers of children and teens are struggling on this very day from wake-up in the morning to sleep (if sleep even happens) at night, in 2nd Grade and 11th Grade, in public schools and private schools.  And standing behind and beside each of these children is a worn, overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused parent - or two parents - trying in herculean ways to find answers and make things better.  Trust me, I know.

When a crisis hits, people mobilize.  Only in this case, it isn't a natural disaster but rather a national crisis impacting not only families in their own homes, but employers as well.  Employers must offer assistance, whether through flexible work options, funds allocated for an employee to use for therapies, private school, or legal counsel, or employee resource groups so working parents can share information and offer support.  Because even with internet research in the middle of the night, what working parent with an 8 or 14-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome has the time or energy to shoulder more than they already are?  Employers also need to recognize that today's children with an autism spectrum disorder will likely be tomorrow's employees programming their computer system or writing their corporate manual.  And in terms of society, everyone needs to begin to understand autism differently, for many pre-conceived notions from years ago are as outdated as go-go boots and wall telephones.

One in 50 children has autism.  It impacts everyone and is a genuine crisis.  Trust me, I know.

 

 

Beating The Drum A Bit More...Telecommuting, Etc.

For the past few weeks, everyone has been either talking or reading about Marissa Mayer's decision to end telecommuting for Yahoo employees.  I've read just about every viewpoint - those who support it, those who vehemently disagree with it, those who believe it's smart business, those who are waiting for Mayer to realize the error of her ways. I've already made my perspectives clear on it - it's a bad business decision, the impact of which go beyond the in-house fallout and anticipated revolving door of exit interviews (if Yahoo even cares to listen) to broader concerns about how the CEO world is going to react/respond.  No question this is a major blow to the years of progress made in the workplace flexibility arena.  But there's a little more to be said.

I just read a 2011 Forbes article  - "What Employees Want More Than A Raise," which reviewed the top drivers of retention.  Care to guess one which was at the top of the list?  Respect.  Hum ... respect.  Let's see...

  • Can a company be viewed as "respecting" its employees if their diverse needs and complicated work/life balance issues are ignored...or worse, shoved aside entirely?
  • Can a company support any contention that it "respects" its employees if management institutes mandates (i.e. you will be at your desk every day at 9:00 a.m.) vs. opening up for discussion - yes, across the organization - operational changes being evaluated (i.e. we're exploring ways to modify our telecommuting policies and are asking for your input)?
  • Can a company view themselves as "respecting" the manager/employee relationship when decisions are made based upon explanations (i.e. the need for communication and collaboration) that simply don't add up?

It's probably clear where I'm heading with this...the answer is no.  Respect is far more than a term in a mission statement or something taught in a Management 101 class.  It's recognizing that communication happens top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, and side-to-side.  It's understanding that collaboration means working together on difficult issues, appreciating the impact major decisions will have on employees, and offering real, viable options that truly demonstrate that every employee is valuable and, you got it, respected.

No...I don't see anything about this decision that demonstrates respect.  Rather, whether it was Yahoo's way to weed out non-performers or demonstrate that they can exercise control over their workforce, it's pretty apparent - no matter your perspective on the decision itself - that "respect" for its employees was not even a discussion point during that meeting.

Struggling Kids Become Adults ... Then What?

Did you know that the costs to incarcerate someone is more than it is to educate them?  I'm sure this is the case in most states as would be the statistics that show that a fairly hefty percentage of the young adults and adults in prison have undiagnosed disabilities - learning, developmental, behavioral, emotional, mental. This isn't about scaring parents into thinking that their struggling children are heading to jail.  Rather, it's about asking parents to look toward the horizon, where high school graduation, driving, college, employment, and independent living comes into play.  It's about acknowledging that if your child is struggling today, they may well grow into a struggling adult.

No parent wants to know that their 4th Grader has dyslexia or their 9th Grader is bipolar.  No parent wants to think about how their 6th Grader is going to manage through the social challenges of middle school when their child has Asperger's Syndrome or how their gifted 12th Grader with ADHD is going to handle the demands of college.  But here's the reality - acknowledge and work to support it today, or know that the gaps grow wider and the consequences far more serious with each passing year.

Over the past few months, I've read actual posts from college students asking to pay others to write their college papers or take their online classes for them.  Nothing new as we've heard about this for some time.  And while I'll readily admit that some may be lazy or just not interested in doing the work, others may have been struggling with reading, writing, or math for years.   This creates enormous pressure for the child which morphs into serious challenges for them as adults, and while they learn ways to "smoke and mirror" their deficits, eventually the smoke clears and the mirror cracks.

Ask any college administrator about the increasing numbers of freshman who are taking remedial classes - and more than one or two and often for multiple semesters - because they are woefully deficient in basic academic skills and this tells us plenty.  Ask any college health services department about the exploding numbers of students seeking mental health counseling and this tells us plenty.  And ask any manager about the numbers of Gen Y employees who cannot write a well-developed report or develop a budget and this tells us plenty.   These issues didn't just appear...many have been hidden in plain sight for many for years.

Parents are stretched thin, often struggling to balance work and family with a host of other responsibilities.  And having just one more thing to do is often enough to tip the scale beyond being able to manage.  Yet I would bet that there isn't a parent who doesn't want their child to be able to live and function as a competent, self-sufficient adult.  For many, however, this is a goal that comes with additional requirements in order to achieve it.

Maybe your child won't be posting on Craigslist or a college Facebook page for someone to write their Sociology paper, and maybe your child won't find him/herself struggling with emotional issues that makes keeping a full-time job impossible.  But maybe they will.  Wouldn't it be better to look the needs in the face now, while they're young, instead of hoping they'll go away when they become young adults?  We give our children roots as well as wings to fly, but for many, they need far more.

Work Or Family...It's All About Relationships

The similarities between workplaces and families are striking. There's the leader or the parent... unproductive staff meetings or holiday gatherings where few people are happy...employees doing more with less or limits on eating out... disengaged employees or family strife with teenagers.

If you really think about it, the one key difference between the workplace and the family is that workplaces pay their employees for the work they do whereas family members pay - in many ways - just for being part of the family.

I just read an article in Forbes entitled "Why Are So Many Employees Disengaged" and the research study cited concludes that the #1 reason is the relationship with the employee's supervisor, costing employers $11 billion annually in employee turnover.  No surprise here, because we know that the attitudes and actions of the person/people at the top frame the experiences of everyone else.  Whether at work or home, it all boils down to the human level or, relationships.

When we look at top workplaces and companies striving for "best places to work" status, we often look at things like professional development, benefits or "perks," or advancement opportunities as the core drivers.  No question these things help keep employees happy and may be easier to measure, but it's the intangibles - often referred to as the softer, "feel good" things - that make for those workplaces and families we'd like to call our own or strive to create.

Relationships are built on people feeling listened to, respected, involved, and appreciated.  It's sustained when everyone feels "part of" and knows - deep down at a personal level - that they're a needed cog in the wheel to move things forward.  It's not surprising at all that the key issue related to disengagement involves the relationships (or lack thereof) of the people who are most closely aligned.  Rather, the question to be asked is what's being done to improve these fractured or non-existent relationships and is it a priority?

The workplace defines what people do.  Families define who people are.  Each revolves around relationships ... more complex and harder to quantify, but enviable if you don't have them and fortunate if you do.  Whether at work or at home, it's the quality of the relationships of the people involved that makes all the difference.   As a proverb says, "No road is long with good company."

The Juggle & Struggle Of Work/Life

The supermarket is a great place to tap into the pulse of people's lives.  I don't eavesdrop, but discussions often occur in such a way that I'm sure the people doing the talking must think they're in a bubble and can't be overheard.  I could write a book on the things I've heard while shopping for bread and grapes and I'm sure you could too.

SUPERMARKETS ... MORE THAN JUST FOOD

Standing at the deli counter recently, I heard two women - who clearly had not seen each other in a while - sharing their respective "tsoris" (Yiddish for suffering or hurt).  One was doing most of the talking about her elderly father who needed to move into an assisted living facility while her pre-teen child was going through his own difficulties and angst.  I could relate (and wanted to say so) since I went through the independent living/assisted living/nursing home/hospice nightmare with my own father several years ago while my child was dealing with unrelenting bullying in school.  I could see in her face - and I only glanced quickly - that she was barely functional.

There was no way to know whether this woman was also working outside of the home but if so, her candle was not burning at both ends but was about to be extinguished.  Issues of this magnitude have a significant impact on a person's work as family needs overlay all else.  And because life isn't linear and these life situations don't exist in neat, succinct packages where you deal with one thing at a time, chaos can become a way of existence.

IT'S NOT THIS OR THAT

Work/life is a "juggle and a struggle" but just as importantly, it's not an either/or scenario.  While every employee at every life stage is dealing with different issues, one thing is for sure ... it's a rare individual who is facing just one work/life challenge.  Issues often arise together or back-to-back, creating a push-pull ripe with conflict and forcing a rapid shift in priorities, all while taking a daily toll in virtually every aspect of life.

A working parent vs. a single person.  Someone with medical issues vs. someone facing retirement.  An employee with financial pressures vs. one with elder care needs.  Every need and situation is different and "best companies" are constantly searching for ways to respond.  Yet it's essential that organizations also recognize that it's not an either/or scenario ... that many employees are dealing with more than one issue and many times, more than one at a time.  And these needs continue to evolve and change.

WHAT'S TOP OF MIND

It's often the case that when one situation abates, another quickly take its place.  Some issues are never revealed or discussed, yet take a huge toll on an employee's functioning and health.  Others require so much of a person's time and attention that achieving any balance is beyond reach.  Sometimes an employee can barely catch his/her breath before it hits the fan again and while the fan keeps on spinning, so does the employee.

There's really no difference between the ebb and flow of business and the ebb and flow of life.  With one exception.  I've yet to hear anyone in the supermarket talking about profit margins or sales quotas, but do hear plenty about marriages, children, elderly parents, college applications, teens in crisis, divorces, foreclosures, and the need for vacations.  It's not that people aren't thinking about work or that it isn't important.  It's just that home, family, and life are what's being discussed at the deli counter.

Engagement...And Not With A Ring

Engagement is definitely a hot topic these days.  Not the type that involves announcements or wedding plans, but that involves the quest for that *thing* that will result in happy employees who are fully engaged each and every day at work.  There's talk about employee development, rewards and recognition programs, and opportunities for advancement.   Articles, blogs, and research about engagement rule the day yet solutions seem to remain elusive. Companies are struggling to figure out how to shift the engine that drives engagement into gear.   They recognize that engagement translates into retention and strong bottom-line numbers.  And while some may believe that it's still a "soft" business issue, the reality is clear -- happy employees translate into a successful business.  Sounds simple but as anyone in HR and Benefits knows, it's anything but.

So what's the problem?  Why aren't employees engaged after that holiday party complete with lobster puffs and champagne?  Why isn't company-paid life insurance and that health club discount enough?   What more do employees want?   Wait...maybe that's the issue.  Engagement may have less to do with what employees want and everything to do with what employees need.  May sound like semantics, but it's the nuances in life that make all the difference.

To drill down into needs, let's make a few brief assumptions (and I do hate to make assumptions):

  • Life is not linear, therefore every day presents new challenges.
  • Workplace and family responsibilities often conflict.
  • Increasing productivity demands on employees along with ongoing demands from children and aging parents along with personal issues create obstacles.

While not the entire picture, it does show one thing -- the marriage of work/life balance and employee engagement is a rocky one.  And while we can draw some other conclusions about employees through assessments (e.g. how many employees are using the smoking cessation program), one of the core things often overlooked is that employees are *individuals*, not a cluster of the same.  And as individuals, their needs vs. wants are individualized, making it even more challenging for companies to figure them out no less try to meet them.

A recent article in Forbes spoke about 28 research studies that focus on employee engagement, addressing core areas impacted by engagement including sales, retention, and profits.  Basically, the studies highlight the importance of engagement and the direct correlation to healthy, successful companies.  Yet what was not addressed was the correlation between a company's understanding of the *needs* of employees -- the real-life issues facing this mosaic of individuals -- and how addressing these needs translates into engagement.

Like virtually every area of work/life integration, one size does not fit all.  Yes, there are some conclusions that can be drawn and some solutions -- call them benefits, programs, perks -- that can target a large swath of the workforce.  Yet even when solutions seem to be well developed and executed, the ebb and flow of daily living often quickly shifts employee priorities and needs ... often without fanfare or communication to those who may be able to assist.  And this has a direct correlation to engagement.

Companies and the people charged with figuring out the solutions face challenges inherent in a diverse workforce.   Solutions require a level of "company engagement" not needed in prior years because the workforce is vastly different today.  On Monday morning -- or any other morning, look at your employees and remember that each of them is shouldering hidden burdens and life demands that are in direct competition with your need (not want) for them to be engaged.

Asking employees, "What do you need in order to be more engaged at work" means being prepared to respond.  And as with other things in life, not all needs can be met ... or met completely.  But it's asking these needs-driven questions that brings engagement to an individual level.  And isn't this what engagement is really all about?

A Discussion Whose Time Has Come

I love pets.  Dogs, cats...wonderful creatures.  They share our homes and make us laugh in YouTube videos.   They're special members of our families.  I used to have pets so I get it.  Truly.  And I know that comparing a Collie or short-hair to anything else is probably unfair.  But life isn't always fair. In the world of work/life where companies are striving for employees be happy and productive, many are offering "pet insurance" to ease the financial pressures pet owners face.  The thinking is that employees will worry less about the vet bill and more about the looming client deadline.  I'm in favor of anything that helps an employee balance -- or better juggle -- their often competing life responsibilities.  Which brings me to the comparison.

I just read an article where the focus was parents talking to parents about what to expect when their child is diagnosed with autism.  Nothing new, as I've spent 14 years *listening* in corporations, online forums, parent support groups, and a host of other places where parents come together to share the "real scoop" on life pre and post an autism diagnosis.  I've heard most of it and with every story heard, I find myself shaking my head both in disbelief and admiration.

In this recent article, one parent said: "Be prepared to go into debt, borrow from family, increase your mortgage, take out a line of credit to pay for interventions...".   Go into debt.  Borrow from family.  Take out a line of credit. Can you imagine being a parent who needs to take out a loan to get your child what he or she needs?  Sitting down with your parents to ask them for money so their grandchild can learn to speak ... or make a friend?  Trying to decide whether you can keep working to pay off that loan or repay your parents (not to mention pay for all the *other* needs) when the time you'll need to orchestrate your child's daily and weekly schedule will take far more than two weeks paid vacation or short-term family leave?

Which brings me back to pets.   I realize this may not be popular with the "pet set," but if -- as a former HR Director with a choice to make -- I had to choose between supporting the needs of employees with children or pets, children win.  Hands-down.  Before the barbs are tossed, it's important to say that in an ideal world, every employee's needs would be supported so that everyone would be fully productive and engaged.  But this isn't the ideal world and choices are part of the equation.  Companies grapple with decisions about where to put their limited benefits dollars and how many choices to offer employees when benefits options are included.  But -- and my shield is poised -- there's a huge difference between helping an employee pay for a flea treatment vs. helping an employee raise a child.

Children who will attend college, work in companies, pay taxes.  Children who will make contributions to science, technology, performing arts.  Who will move from dependent children to independent adults poised to purchase the products and services your company produces or provides.  No one would ever want less for a child.  And no one would ever dare limit a child by a diagnosis.  Yet the future for these children rests on their parents -- current working parents facing choices that defy description.

So it's baffling to me that smart, forward-thinking companies seem to place more importance on helping employees care for their pets than to raise their children.   Is it a lack of understanding or a reluctance to get involved?  Or is it a preconceived idea that children with autism will not reach the expectations that many consider to be "typical" of children moving into adulthood so why bother?  No, it can't be that.

A number of years ago, I worked with parents who sold their home and moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment turning their second bedroom into a therapy room for their child.  They also sold their second car and carried their "change of season" clothes packed into large plastic containers in the trunk of their car.  And just recently, I met parents who are in the throws of bankruptcy because they used every penny they had and maxed out their credit cards to support their child's needs.  Life-altering choices are being made by employees every day to help their children.

Companies play a pivotal role here.   The same subsidies offered to employees trying to adopt should be offered to employees to help offset the staggering costs of therapies or home-interventions.  Discounts on legal support should be extended to employees in need of a special education attorney to secure a private school for their child.  On-site health fairs should include experts in special needs and special education to enable employees to access supports and resources easily and more cost-effectively.  With health and stress-reduction being core areas of focus in the workplace, few things compare to the financial, family, work, and personal pressures on an employee raising a 6-year-old or 13-year-old with autism.

I have nothing against pets.  Really, no problems at all.  But a problem does exist when supporting tails that wag or fluffy balls that purr seem to take priority.  A disconnect exists -- companies are striving and competing to achieve "best company" status yet are overlooking the growing number of working parents desperately needing a lifeline.  Pets and children can live together beautifully both at home and in the workplace, however when a choice needs to be made, the child has to win every time.

Working Parents -- Start Asking The Tough Questions In School

Why are people so afraid to ask questions?  Okay, let me rephrase...why are parents so afraid to ask questions?  Is it because they don't know the questions to ask, don't want to hear the answers, or are reluctant to question people with expertise they may not have?

This question isn't being posed as something simply to consider, but is being directed in particular to working parents with a child who is struggling in school.  The fact is that while most are truly desperate for knowledge, many are reluctant to open the door to access answers.  But before you say, "Hey...I ask plenty of questions," allow me to elaborate.

WHY THE HESITATION?

If you're a working parent, you're already up to your neck with work/life challenges, particularly if you have a child with, for example, Asperger's Syndrome or a learning disability.  You're struggling to figure out what to do (i.e. what interventions or therapies are appropriate), who should do it (i.e. should you push for these services in school or secure them privately), and how to balance it all (i.e. workplace demands and family responsibilities).  It's a boatload of pressure any way you slice it.

But here's where the "questions" issue comes to a head.  Too many of you are reluctant to ask the psychologist who just completed your child's comprehensive testing to explain the results and data in "lay language" so you can understand it.  A 35-page report and you can't decipher much of it.  You're reluctant to ask your child's tutor (who you're paying for) to show you exactly what skills are being addressed.  You're hesitant to ask your child's teacher for data to support progress or to question things during your child's IEP meeting that are unclear or not making sense.  And if you are asking, you're not asking the questions to yield the information you need.

Questions are not being asked when answers are needed most.  Often times, it's because you see these people as "the experts," therefore it would be wrong, disrespectful, insulting, etc. to question them.  But isn't this precisely what's needed?  And aren't they asking you questions that may make you uncomfortable or push your boundaries?  What's truly puzzling is this -- if you take a similar scenario into the business arena, you are likely fine with asking all kinds of questions and your hesitation to ask is minimal.

I'd like to suggest something here -- that you begin to approach your child's education like you do your work.  In other words, ask yourself whether you're getting a return on your investment.  Is your time (often measured by the hours you're spending away from work handling your child's needs or perhaps reducing your work schedule entirely) and your resources (tapping into savings or borrowing from family) yielding positive results?  If you don't know the answer, you're not asking the tough questions.

Working parents who have children with special needs are mired in a "life mural" that requires unmatched work/life balance strategies.  Confusion and feeling overwhelmed is commonplace.  So what's the solution?  Asking the tough questions of "the experts" and expecting clear answers.  And continuing to ask questions if things remain unclear.  This approach yields powerful results ... and isn't this exactly what you're looking for?

Work-Life & The Question ... "Where's The Pain?"

Like many, research and data drives my actions.  Statistics and trends lead to solutions.  Yet without fail, it's the individual -- the single person whose eyes speak as much as, if not more than, their words -- that trumps all. Anyone who is charged with supporting employees -- typically human resources and iterations thereof -- knows well that mounting pressures from every corner are having a direct impact on employee engagement, productivity, and retention.   In plain speak, this means colleagues to your left and right are struggling with family and financial issues (e.g. how to pay for childcare, private school, or home care for an aging parent) to personal health and stress (e.g. obesity, depression, and absenteeism).  There is not one single employee who, if asked, could not answer the question "Where's the pain?"

Key takeaways from newly released Towers Watson research -- the "Global Workforce Study" -- all boil down to one thing ... employees are struggling.  One statistic in particular emerged as significant -- 53% of employees do not feel that their organization makes it possible for them to have a healthy balance between work and personal life.  53%.  Take a company with 10,000 employees and that equates to 5,300 employees.   A department with 75 employees means almost 40 employees.  Or a team of 25 equates to just over 13 employees.  No, people.  Each with different needs.  And given that work-life balance (or integration) consistently appears in virtually every study or research as being a key reason for employee satisfaction, well-being, and yes...engagement, what does this tell us?

It tells me several things:

  1. Employers are not asking the important question -- "Where's the pain?"
  2. Employers still need to drill down to more tightly assess and address the issues tearing employees into pieces.
  3. Employers are continuing to learn that work-life balance means different things to different people, making the challenges and opportunities greater.

Yes, there are certain areas where some conclusions can perhaps be made -- e.g. a working mother just returning from maternity leave will have specific needs; an employee reaching retirement age will require certain supports that are unique to this lifecycle.  Yet there are other conclusions that cannot be made simply by looking at the demographics of the workforce.  This is where asking the question, "Where's the pain?" comes into play.  Asking is the first step.  Being prepared to respond is next.

Employers are often concerned that asking the question will result in answers that they cannot address.  Costs that they expect will be greater than they can bear.  Changes that they are not prepared (or willing) to implement.  Or, it's the fear that opening Pandora's Box will mean "everyone will want it" even though the "it" has not been defined and despite knowing that not everyone will want, need, or use everything offered or available.  *But*... for those who do, the benefits can be tremendous and far-reaching, both for the employee and the organization.  Keep in mind that the flip side to "knowing" is assuming and we know the adage about assumptions.  It's truly less about costs and more about something quite simple...showing employees that you are listening.  And isn't investing in human capital -- the people who make every organization "sing" the most important investment of all?

We all know that not every need can be filled, yet the pain can be eased for far more if the door is open to asking and listening.  Sometimes just knowing someone cares is enough to begin.  And where the pain exists for one, there is likely similar pain for others too.  The first step is finding it.

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Why Is It So Hard?

Over this long holiday week, questions have been marinating in my mind.  Not new questions, but questions that require us to consider and discuss things a bit differently.   Welcome to my July "brain dump"... Why is it so hard for people to understand that parenting a child with autism or ADHD is like parenting three typical children?

Why is it so hard for the people called "Mom and Dad" to be treated by the outside world (and sadly, sometimes their "inside world" too) with the respect they deserve when autism touches their family?

Why is it so hard for extended families to locate and access the supports they need when a grandchild, nephew, niece, or cousin has been diagnosed with autism?

Why is it so hard for parents of children with special needs to access the services and supports their children need in school (and yes, I know the actual reasons)?

Why is it so hard for children with autism or other differences to be accepted by their peers?

Why is it so hard for people to drop the assumption held by many that children with a "label" -- e.g. learning disability, Asperger's Syndrome -- will not reach high levels of achievement so the expectations for such are reduced or eliminated entirely?

Why is it so hard for companies/employers to make the correlation between the numbers of children diagnosed with autism (now estimated at 1 in 88) and the working parents in their workforce (i.e. the parents of these children) who are barely keeping their heads above water and need help...now?

Why is it so hard for working parents to utilize flexible work options when flexibility is the key to recruiting and retaining top performers *and* it's considered as important -- if not moreso -- than money?

Asking 8 questions on July 8th is a good start (for now).  The point is this...we can't be afraid to ask these and many other questions.  Plus, what do we teach our children?  That no question should be left unasked.  Asking a question is the first step to change.  Change in understanding, perspective, appreciation, or response.  All it takes is picking up that prism and turning it slightly to see things differently.  That's the purpose of the questions...

Hey Buddy...Have $1.4 Million To Spare?

I don't know about you, but few people who exist in my sphere have this kind of money.  Even those who have been working and saving for years come up way short.  So if someone told you that you needed $1.4 million dollars -- or access to it, what would you say?  And what if you had no option because this was the amount of money it would take to raise your autistic child over his or her lifetime?  Suddenly this number rings at a deafening pitch. Numbers, particularly those that few of us have ever had looking back at us from our check register, are hard to grasp but let's take a quick look anyway -- $1.4 million if the child does not have an intellectual disability; take it to $2.3 million if he or she does.  This is according to preliminary research released in March by AutismSpeaks, which added one other mind-numbing number -- that the annual costs of autism are -- wait for it -- $126 billion.   That's a big number.

But how about this?   Research released today takes these numbers and converts them into words ... words that many people may be able to more easily understand...and act upon.  The costs to parents who are raising a child with autism are *higher* than for parents raising a child with diabetes.   Diabetes.  One of the key health concerns facing children and adults today.  An issue grabbing the attention of doctors, dieticians, educators, and policy makers.  And a focus of most workplace health initiatives and health fairs.  Everyone wants to reduce the number of children and adults struggling with diabetes.  The volume is definitely growing louder and people are starting to take notice and mobilize.

Take notice.  Precisely what's needed in order for employers to recognize that while diabetes is a major issue, so too is autism.  The financial, family, and health toll it takes on working parents to raise a 5-year-old with autism or a 12-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome is enormous.  Even taking the workplace issues of productivity and absenteeism off the table for a minute, the amount of money, time, and resources needed to help their children with autism reach their capabilities brings working parents to bankruptcy.  Forces families to forgo vacations.  Makes second cars a non-option.  Requires more than the occasional holiday visit with grandparents.  And forces many to leave the workforce even with these out-of-orbit costs.

While today's news did not come as a shock, it did raise the need -- okay, my need -- to continue to increase the volume about the toll autism takes on working parents.   I was talking to someone earlier today about employers providing pet insurance to employees -- a great "perk" for sure.  Yet I said that providing supports to working parents who are raising children with autism is not a perk -- it's a necessity.  Isn't the work-life discussion one that revolves around bringing some sanity and balance to otherwise out-of-control life situations?

Few people today are not touched by autism in some way.   This translates into working parents -- many boomers also caring for aging parents -- feeling a level of pressure and responsibility unmatched by many.  The needs continue to emerge yet the resources and supports are difficult if not impossible to access.  Employers play a pivotal role in this equation and it starts by telling these employees, "We get it", just as they do in supporting a range of other issues also impacting their workforce.   But there's one difference.  Parenting a child with autism directly affects more than the employee alone...it affects the child and the family unit as well.  Talk about stress.

Next time you hear something about autism -- and the media is all over the issue -- stop for a minute and think, "So what would I do if someone told me it would take $1.4 million to raise my child into adulthood."  You'd be doing what millions of other parents are already doing -- struggling and hoping someone will listen and help.

 

What Work-Life Really Means...

Work-life -- ask anyone what it means to them and you'll likely hear just about anything and everything that impacts them whether they're in their 20s or 50s.  From the daily struggles of trying to balance their job with their parenting or elder care responsibilities to figuring out how to handle their finances, health, retirement planning, volunteer interests ... the list is endless.  It's about the day-to-day balancing act that leaves many overwhelmed and most underprepared. A few years ago, someone commented to me that if you're working, the job comes first.  When I questioned what happens "if or when" any number of non-work related situations emerge, this person replied -- without missing a beat -- that everything else comes second.  "In principle, perhaps, but not in life" was my response to which the conversation quickly ended.  Their premise sounded far more like theory than practice to me.

Every HR person knows that employees today are stretched thin, many to the breaking point.  Organizations are adding programs and services in an effort to "stop the bleeding" before the patient cannot be saved.  The C-suite is being bombarded with messages about employee engagement and productivity.  Yet somehow, with all the efforts (and many needs are indeed being met), the basic premise upon which these efforts are being based has become somewhat amorphic.  The reality is that work-life really means one thing ... living.

I know not one person for whom work-life balance is not an issue from awakening to sleep (if sleep can be had).  Whether a full-time employee, stay-at-home parent (and yes...this *is* a full-time job and then some), part-time employee, or someone looking for a job, trying to achieve any sort of balance -- and this alone is a topic unto itself -- is a herculean task at best.  Yet it appears as though many believe that once work-life balance is achieved -- if only for a certain period of time, it is supposed to miraculously be sustained.

The saying "the best-laid plans..." seems to fit the days and lives of many.  Plans set forth have changed, life processes have run amuck, deadlines are moved, appointments rescheduled ... what might have been balance yesterday is chaos today.   And then add to it children, aging parents, stress, health issues, business travel, the economy ... well, you get the picture.  This is living -- it's a dynamic, fast-changing process unto itself that requires flexibility, just like work-life balance.

A job-sharing situation that lasts for three months may ease some pressing work-life balance issues yet when it ends, it's a new day.  Working from home two days per week might cut down on commuting costs yet there are other "costs" that require new ways of working.  It's all about realizing that work-life balance means being able to adjust and adapt to change, just as with living itself.

Organizations expect and need employees to be flexible, to multi-task, and to be ready to change.  Children need (or school requires) their parents to be able to handle their needs...immediately.  Elderly parents hope their children will be able to tend to their needs which often emerge without notice.  This is living.  It's unpredictable, messy and often relentless.  It might be easier for everyone from the C-suite down to start referring to work-life as living because this is something every one of us can understand and support.

 

 

The Business World Is Catching On...

Everything begins with a single voice or a single need.  In the business world, the same premise applies only many times the voices and needs are often just beneath the surface.  Not any longer. Last week, I was both an attendee and an honoree at the WorldatWork Alliance for Work-Life Progress' annual conference in Arizona.  What started several months ago as a nomination grew into a recognition and award as one of their 2012 "Rising Stars" for work-life contributions in a relatively new area -- providing supports and services to employees with children from kindergarten through college transition diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, and other "hidden differences."  Not a new need but one that has been flying under the radar...until now.

It was an honor to be recognized by my peers in the work-life community, most of whom are driving change in their organizations by raising the volume about the increasingly complex needs of their workforces.  Work-life leaders from many of our largest companies were in attendance -- Johnson & Johnson, Metlife, Marriott, and KPMG...to name a few.  There were work-life leaders from academia and health care as well as other industries.  Discussions revolved around  new programs being developed, research underway, and the reasons why work-life professionals need a "seat at the table" when broad business issues are being discussed.

I vividly recall many years ago when the issue of lactation rooms was discussed in hushed tones and never in the C-suite.  When flexible work options were "offered" to only a select few as managers believed that they could not manage an employee working remotely plus they assumed that if flexibility was offered to one, every employee would request the same...and then what.  As the commercial from years ago said, "We've come a long way baby."

The needs of today's workforce are as varied as they are complex.  Employees are facing a plethora of work-life issues ranging from child and elder care to retirement and exceptional caregiving, each impacting their health, wellness, finances, and families (immediate and extended) as well as their productivity and engagement on the job.  Understanding these needs and programming for them while working to educate management about the necessities of work-life integration is nothing short of a herculean task.  Yet every one of the work-life professionals who attended last week's conference is tackling this task with intelligence, grace, and yes...humor.

It's fair to say that being recognized by your peers is a true professional accomplishment and one that holds real significance.  It's also fair to say that it embeds a new level of responsibility in us for ensuring that the needs of this fast-growing segment of the workforce are met.  One of the researchers at the conference indicated that 14% of the workforce is raising children with disabilities -- a staggering number of employees.

The business world may take a little time to recognize emerging employee issues and needs but when it does, the results can be stunning.  Being with colleagues whose focus is solely work-life reinforced what I already knew to be true -- it only takes one voice to start a choir and this choir is definitely singing in harmony.

 

Train To Sustain & Retain

I count myself among those who believe that organizations can adapt and respond to fast-changing employee needs.  And indeed, many organizations do provide a range of programs and supports geared toward meeting some of these needs and keeping their employees happy or, at least, helping them to better manage their work/life responsibilities. Yet there is a critical piece of the equation often lacking yet it surfaces periodically in articles and commentaries about today's work environment and deserves more focus -- the importance of training and supporting those charged with actually implementing many of these programs and supports.  Take flexible work options, for example.  Policies may be in place for employees to be able to work flexibly yet many state that they do not take advantage of these policies for fear that it will preclude them from ... fill-in-the-blank -- being considered for the next promotion, being assigned the upcoming project, or being asked to travel unexpectedly to a client site.

Policies that are not utilized need to be examined and more times than not, there are obstacles both on the "giving" and "receiving" side.  Without question, the obstacles are rooted in a lack of understanding, familiarity, and skills to enable both parties to have a win/win so that the programs and supports -- often touted as being a critical part of the organization's retention efforts -- are actually used.  With the ever-increasing competition to be recognized as a "best" company, organizations need to move beyond the offering stage to ensure that what's offered in writing is being used in practice.

If a manager has never managed someone who is telecommuting two days per week, they need training to understand how to do it.  This makes the policy sustainable because, well...it's being used.  If an employee needs or wants to utilize a program or service yet is reluctant to do so for whatever the reason, internal communications vehicles need to assess this and determine three things:

  1. What is the obstacle (or obstacles);
  2. What is the reason for the obstacle/s; and
  3. What do we need to do to remove the obstacle/s to generate and increase usage.

It usually falls to an employee's manager to give the "go-ahead" whether verbally or otherwise to proceed.  And while the words can be "yes," more times than not it's the non-verbals that convey otherwise.  Organization-wide training is essential when any new program or service is offered and the training needs to go well beyond describing what it is, who can use it, how much it will cost, and when it begins.  The training needs to continue well into implementation for there's a huge difference between offering something and using it.

Value-added training drills down into the culture of the organization to understand the opportunities and barriers.  It enables organizations to know how change needs to be introduced and what adjustments need to be made along the way.  As we all know, change often comes slowly and this is definitely the case when an organization is providing employees with an opportunity to do things differently.  Even with the good stuff, it's essential to train in order to sustain and to retain.