Working Caregiving Parents Need Time

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

Working parents are handling two jobs - their work and their children, a full plate for almost every parent.  Add an 8-year-old with autism, an 11-year-old with a learning disability, or a 17-year-old with depression and the work/life needs are often insurmountable. 

There's all the "typical" parenting responsibilities, which are often anything but typical, plus another layer of needs ranging from facilitating their child’s services and supports to managing ongoing school issues; it's a life of complexities that few understand and are often managed without help.

The Gift of Time

Respite care, or having an hour to themselves, is one of the most important ways parent caregivers can continue doing what they do.  That saying about putting on your own oxygen mask before you can help another definitely holds true here.  Yet there's often no one to help these working parents even reach for their mask no less give them a few minutes to breathe. 

The Caregiver Action Network has information that provides resources to help working caregivers which applies to exceptional caregiving for children as well as aging parents.  And many are handling both - caring for a child with special needs and for an aging parent as well. 

If someone in your life is dealing with these issues, the best way you can show them you're aware and care is with the gift of time.  It can be an hour to shower or time to take a walk.  Or simply to have some quiet time to try to regroup and refresh.  Don't wait for them to ask or for a crisis to arise.  Having a little "me" time can make all the difference.

So…How Was Your Working Parents Day?

Just wondering…did this week’s recognition of Working Parents Day change your life in any way?  I’m not a betting person yet I’ll wager not.  Yesterday was likely the same as today and tomorrow will likely follow suit.

Here’s the thing…I’m all for bringing attention to causes.  Hell…I support many myself and applaud those who work tirelessly to raise awareness and generate support for anything that will help another person.  Or many other people.  But I do have a problem with a day coined “Working Parents Day” when the reality is that a day hardly does this cause justice.

I’ve said it before and will continue to say it — working parents have a herculean task that faces them at sunrise every day and doesn’t end until their weary bodies fall into bed at night.  And why do they do it?  Because they value their efforts and contributions at work as they hold dear their roles as Moms and Dads.  As they should.  And they shouldn’t have to choose.

Married or single parent.  One child or several.  Raising a middle schooler or guiding a college junior.  Family support or at the rodeo alone.  Self-employed or employee.  Each and every working parent deserves recognition that goes far beyond the day set aside to do so.  Instead of assigning a name to a day, why don’t we start to truly listen to working parents and do better at meeting their needs.

Many companies are definitely doing a great job of providing a multitude of supports and programs to help all their employees be productive, engaged, and healthy.  Yet many companies are still far behind the curve and even in those organizations where exceptional benefits are the norm, working parents continue to struggle.  And part of the reason is that their needs, for better or worse, are different.  And these differences mean different solutions.

We tend to take notice when a societal crisis hits and then scramble to try to figure out why it happened and what immediate solution can mitigate the seriousness of the situation.  It’s the reactive vs. proactive mode of operation, one that rarely succeeds.  And if we really take a minute to examine this crisis, it involves our children who require far more from their parents today — and I don’t mean more i-Phones or designer clothes — than ever before.  They need time.  Years ago it was latchkey kids.  Today it’s an explosion of afterschool programs to keep children involved vs. walking the streets.  But the buck begins and ends with parents and many are unable to stretch any farther.

So for those who created Working Parents Day, I say forget the day.  Instead, let’s take a look at how we can help the Dad who can’t get out of the office before 6:00 knowing his son’s softball games start at 4:30.  Or the Mom whose childcare provider continues to call in sick…at 7:00 when she leaves for work at 7:15.  These are real issues facing real people with real children depending upon them to find solutions.

If this day is celebrated next year, how about giving every working parent Working Parents Day off.  Now this would make a difference.

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.

Few Working Parents Are Saying "Ya-hoo" Today

Having just returned from the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP) annual forum in Baltimore, discussion surrounding Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) and her decision to end telecommuting for employees bubbled up throughout.   No question, many (including me) are talking about this business decision, and it's one that deserves plenty of discussion. Back in the dark ages - when I began working in the work/life arena, terms like job-sharing and telecommuting required definitions and explanations.  They were foreign concepts to many and those remotely familiar with them quickly concluded that it was something the "other guy" may consider doing, but not them.  We've come a long way...until Mayer slammed on the brakes.

Progress means taking two steps forward and one step back.  We try a new strategy or program and then have to pivot and adjust.  But when something that has been earned - whether a promotion or the ability to work remotely - is taken away under the guise of wanting to improve communication and collaboration, it becomes a new game.

Communication is a process that involves sharing information, facts, and ideas.  Collaboration is a method of bringing together minds and talents.  Neither requires that people breathe the same air space or pass each other en route to the cafeteria.  At least not every day.  We've long since passed the "punch in at 9/punch out at 5 (if you're lucky) and I need to see you sitting at your desk whenever I pass by" workplace, and those who have fought for progress in the area of workplace flexibility are not going to relent.  Nor should they.

Anyone who has a pre-schooler, teen with a disability, elderly parent, sick spouse, or simply the desire to adjust their work location as needed would agree that this mandate is a no-go.  It's one thing for an organization to be *working toward* a culture whereby flexible work options are part of their operations, but quite another to have it implemented and then taken away.  Since when did we revert back to measuring productivity by face-time?  And what measures is Mayer using to conclude that communication, collaboration and productivity have suffered because of telecommuting employees?   Certainly she must share.

Along with up-ending the lives of employees in this organization, there's a broader concern, one that I shared with colleagues at AWLP's forum.  Other CEOs - because we know that CEOs communicate and collaborate with other CEOs albeit not in the same building - will now either be re-examining their own flexible work/telecommuting policies under a new lens or will be concluding that no...this entire concept isn't for their organization because if it didn't work for Yahoo, it won't work for them.

A business is its employees.  Not its building or products.  Not its intellectual capital or services.  It's their people.  Diverse individuals struggling every day to balance their work responsibilities with home lives.  Organizations compete for "best company" status and spend millions recruiting and retaining top performers.

Some things we know ...

  • The emphasis on employee health (mental and physical), stress, balance, and flexibility are core business issues and concerns.
  • Employees place a huge emphasis on the importance of their leaders/managers listening to their needs and responding accordingly.
  • Workplace flexibility is always at the top of the list of reasons why an employee joins or remains with an organization.

Yahoo's short and long-term turnover numbers, exit interview results, and their retrenched recruitment strategies (and goals) will definitely be things I want to see.  And while the extent of the fallout will take some time to assess, of this I feel certain - those employees impacted by this archaic policy will either let their feet do the talking or are saying a lot of words these days, most of which would sound something like this ... "*@#!!*#*!!".

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."

Your Archenemy Could Well Be Your Ally

No words can adequately describe the level of sadness and horror I, like so many others, feel for people and families across the Mid-Atlantic states -- particularly New Jersey and New York -- who experienced such loss this week when Hurricane Sandy blew into their lives.  Every news report, every picture, and every person interviewed continues to bring the realities of this enormous tragedy into focus. Earlier this week when President Obama met Governor Christie to tour the ravaged areas of his state, something really big happened.  Two people from different backgrounds, with different viewpoints and perspectives, and striving for different goals came together and worked as one.   They viewed what was happening through one lens...through one heart.  Watching them praise the other for their leadership was truly something to see.  It showed us how people can indeed focus on a goal without the noise that often accompanies it.

As I watched the news reports of the hours they spent together, I realized that this was a great lesson about life.  And in my wheelhouse, "life" revolves around business, working parents, and children.  It involves companies and their employees, parents and children's schools.  In both of these scenarios, you often find individuals with very different ways of looking at the world.  Many with very different needs and expectations as well as paths to achieving what, in some situations, could be regarded as similar goals.

I often find that employers fail to recognize that their greatest asset -- not on paper or in an annual report but in practice -- is their people.  People with complex lives, juggling work/life issues, and facing challenges that often leave them feeling overwhelmed.  I also find that schools often fail to recognize that a child's parents are the most critical players in any education matter.  Teachers have the instructional expertise, which is one perspective, yet parents have a far more holistic perspective -- knowing their child best.

From meetings where employee evaluations are conducted to IEP meetings where a child's educational goals are discussed, people working on different sides of the table (or from different perspectives on a common issue) can learn from what Barack Obama and Chris Christie did this week...they more than simply reached across the aisle ... they forgot that an aisle even existed.   And, just as importantly, it showed us that those who may once be regarded as an archenemy -- or someone who simply does not see things as we do -- could well turn out to be the ally needed to move mountains.


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

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 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.


The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days...Wrong

Ah, the start of summer.  Time to kick back, relax, and vacation.  Slow down and open the windows after months when everything and everyone was insulated.   But wait...what voices do I hear?  Is it coming from my head or the mouths of others?  Took me a nanosecond to realize it's others saying, "Not so fast about the leisure days of summer." School is not quite over yet the planning -- and worrying -- about how to play  "the kids are home but I have to be at work" game has long been underway.   Sure, there are camps and playdates (although no middle or high school kids would *ever* have these) that can be and have been scheduled, but many working parents have far more to focus on than making sure there's extra sunscreen in Jason's backpack or confirming that Annie's friend's mother can pick her up from camp.

HR may not be aware of it, but there is a huge number of working parents facing extra distractions and less productivity during these summer months even if casual dress extends until September.   And the reality of these pressures, while parents cognitively know them, hasn't even "hit the fan" yet since there are still a few days of school remaining.  It's like watching the sun know it's happening yet you are savoring every last minute of light.

A manager in your organization or the administrative assistant to a C-suite executive has a child with autism who has been receiving services and therapies in school.  Some every day.  Some for 7+ hours per day.  This working parent has had nine months of school meetings, calls from the principal or teacher, and therapies to juggle and now, along with everything else, their child *may* receive 6 weeks of services, from 8:30 - noon.  That's late June through early August.  What about the day after school ends?  What about August through September?  What happens after 12:00 noon each day during the 6-week program?  Sure, there's Grandmom or the neighbor but at what cost (and I don't mean financially)?  It's a moving target ... you think you have things in your sight when suddenly the target turns, or speeds up, or disappears entirely.  It's unpredictable and makes "livin' on the edge" more than the title of an Aerosmith song.

Some companies allow for summer flexibility -- perhaps slightly shorter days or working from home on Fridays.  Others provide for back-up child care.  All great solutions to some problems.  Yet for others, it's not enough and not what's needed.  For working parents of children and teens with autism spectrum disorders, the needs intensify over the summer -- hard to believe since the school year itself is fraught with chronic and crisis issues and needs.   Trying to piece together a three-month schedule that often includes private programs, extended school year services, tutoring, in-home services, and therapies -- each costing $$$ and requiring parental support and time, is nothing short of another full-time job.   Plus, IEP meetings still happen over the summer, progress monitoring still requires parental supervision, and transition planning for September -- whether to another grade or school -- should be well underway and needs to continue through the summer.

Employers can help make the summer for these employees more manageable with work-life supports.  Offer schedule flexibility if you do not do so already.  Provide financial assistance to offset the cost of specialty summer programs and therapies.  Offer a vacation bank so employees who do not use all their vacation time and wish to donate it to a co-worker can do so.  Extend the option of telecommuting half-days.  Establish an on-site resource room for working parents to privately handle telephone calls from clinicians and therapists.  Provide on-site summer workshops and special education clinics to help employees prepare for the next school year.  There are cost-effective solutions that can offer much-needed (and valued) support.

It's hard being a working parent from now through early fall.  It's even harder when the child or teen needs more than swimming lessons or an art camp.  Summer is when the need for assistance, flexibility, and support is high.  Employers play an instrumental role in supporting working parents and by recognizing the intensified needs during the summer months, these exceptional parents may well be able to take that vacation.  Or, at  the very least, kick back just a bit to regroup and prepare for September.



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 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.


10 Things To Help Us All

I'm really not one to complain, but something has become painfully apparent to me over the past few weeks.  It actually has been obvious for the past few years but it's become moreso lately. It has nothing to do with what I do every day nor the issues that capture my time and attention.  It has to do with people and their behavior.  So with the new year approaching and everyone fixated on resolutions and new beginnings, I wanted to offer a few insights that perhaps could become part of the resolutions of others at this time of year.  They will be part of mine...

  1. Smile.  Just a little.  Even when you don't feel like it.  Even when the other person does not expect or even deserve it.  It's disarming plus makes you feel like a "mensch".
  2. Be kind.  To others.  At times and places when it's least expected.  I've had several people over the past 10 days stop and tell me, "You're a really nice person" when I did nothing more than allow an elder to walk through a door before me or nod to allow someone to step ahead of me in the deli line.  That elder, by the way, commented that she's never seen so many "nasty people" in her life.  I hope she only meant *out and about* but perhaps she meant everyone.
  3. Say thanks.  For things like acknowledging with a simple wave the person who allowed you to merge onto the highway ahead of them or for the cashier who, without asking, double-bagged a fragile item.
  4. Notice things.  Like the person who forgot to close the trunk of their car (and yes, I did close it and notified the customer service desk as well) or the child who dropped a toy while their parent was frantically strolling them out of a crowded store.  Just a few days ago, I witnessed a teenager who was sitting with a few friends stand, walk over, and pick up a piece of newspaper that fell from the hand of a woman who was wheelchair bound.  And yes, I told him that he is the kind of teenager every parent wishes for.
  5. Slow down.  That mocha-choca latte won't suddenly turn cold if you wait to grab it until after you put your change away and are able to balance your laptop, smartphone, briefcase, keys, biscotti, and drink in your two hands.
  6. Stop complaining.  Everyone is busy, harried, stretched, and juggling.  And some are busy-plus with young children, aging parents, financial worries, health concerns, and a host of other things on their minds.  Yes, just like you perhaps.
  7. Be gracious.  If someone defers to you in any small way, recognize it vs. expect it.  Entitlement looks tacky and really makes others shake their heads in disbelief.
  8. Think.  If you don't like the way someone is treating you, consider that perhaps things are not going swimmingly for them and that they are barely hanging on themselves.  It's easier to react but the outcomes are often less fruitful.
  9. Ask.  Rather than assuming something, ask.  You'll be amazed sometimes at the answers.
  10. Be grateful.  If you have warm clothes on your back, a hot meal to eat, a comfortable bed to sleep in, a book or a CD to bring you joy, and at least one person whose presence in your life makes you feel grateful, it's a good thing indeed.

Somewhere along the way, our lives have become so complicated that we have forgotten how we were raised -- to be decent and caring people willing and able to understand that others are carrying burdens just as we may be.  So at this time of holiday merriment, family gatherings, and gift-giving, my wish for everyone is for a kinder, more humane 2012.  Maybe it won't be an easier year and maybe the burdens will still be as heavy but maybe, just maybe, a simple smile or kind gesture will make one moment lighter for you and another.

Happy Holidays to all.

Ninja Employees & Parents

While talking with a friend earlier this week, I indicated that I won't "be a ninja" in the situation we were discussing.  Yet as I thought about it, I realized that in two areas -- work and parenting -- being a ninja is precisely what separates those who make due and those who *do*. The definition alone is wonderful -- a person who "commits a crazy act with unbelievably good results."  Think about it for a minute ... it doesn't describe a ninja as someone who is aggressive or "takes no prisoners," alienating everyone in their path.  It says that the person is thinking and/or doing something "out of the box" to generate stellar results.  Isn't that precisely what every organization wants -- employees who are not afraid to think creatively, to develop new strategies and solutions, and to help generate stellar bottom-line results?  It's employee engagement on steroids.  And isn't it precisely what every parent wants?  Stellar results (defined very differently for each child) for their children in school?

Many organizations are striving to develop innovative ways for employees to contribute to the health of their companies.  They are encouraging cross-functional collaboration, allowing for flexible work options which can often generate creativity, and "loosening the reins" so that new products and services make it into their pipelines.  It's one critical way to enable employees to make their talents known and voices heard.  They become ninja employees.

Many parents are striving to do the same as they work to jump the hurdles necessary for their children to succeed.  Working with different people and teams, bringing creative thinking into problem-solving, and changing their own status quo.  Often times, in business and parenting alike, the first step involves asking the right questions which may seem basic -- e.g. who, what, where, when, why and how.  Then, the "what to do next" phase is where ninja mode comes into play.

I like the ninja concept.  It paints a picture of an employee and a parent not afraid to question and think innovatively and describes a person willing to take some risks in order to achieve "unbelievably good results". It's the difference between shooting wildly and aiming carefully. Wouldn't it be great if more organizations encouraged ninja thinking and allowed every employee to assume an ownership role in the health of their companies?  And imagine what would happen to the millions of children failing at their job -- i.e. school -- if their parents became "ninja parents".  My sword quivers at the mere thought of it all...