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.

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 ... "*@#!!*#*!!".