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The life of working parents is a juggling act in normal times, but the pandemic has made it an unsustainable one. Handling childcare and school, paid work and housework, and in some cases, care for other family members, means something has to give. And for many parents, what gives is their mental health.

A survey published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that between March and June 2020, 27% of parents reported worsening mental health. Another by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 57% of mothers and 32% of fathers saying their mental health has worsened as a result of the pandemic.

Lisa Adukia, manager of total rewards communications at Gap Inc., said parents and managers went straight into “survival mode” with such speed that they didn’t have time to plan for what at-home work and childcare would look like.

“We all just kind of scrambled,” she said, “and so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to really connect and brainstorm ideas [with] other parents, because everybody just immediately hunkered down.”

Believing it’s not too late to have that conversation, five leaders in human resources and employee care lent their expertise in a From Day One webinar titled “Parents Under Pressure: How to Ensure Their Well-being at a Time of Historic Stress,” moderated by Caroline Hroncich, the careers editor at Insider.

Diana Geofroy, VP of human resources at the Colgate-Palmolive Co., said listening must be at the root of parental care. “I think one of the most important things is just listening, listening to understand what are the needs and how we as a company can help out.”

The group agreed there’s no single policy, program or resource that will support everyone in your workforce. “Every family that you talk to has a different set of circumstances going on at home,” said Adukia, “so companies can’t expect to deploy a one-size-fits-all.” Kelly Young, senior director of talent investment and culture at KinderCare Education, proposed a one-size-fits-one approach instead.

In response to what they’re hearing from employees, Geofroy said her organization, where she leads Colgate-Palmolive’s HR operations in Mexico, has created small conferences specific to the feedback they’re getting on things like stress, burnout and grief.

The From Day One panel, top row from left: Kelly Young of KinderCare Education and Diana Geofroy of Colgate-Palmolive. Middle row: Gina Nebesar of Ovia Health, Emily Stirling of Intermountain Healthcare, and moderator Caroline Hroncich of Insider. Bottow row: Lisa Adukia of Gap Inc. (Image by From Day One)

Geofroy has seen strong results, she said. Colgate-Palmolive’s conferences have increased employee uptake of mental-health resources. “We provide an employee-assistance program for the employee and the family. We have seen [in the past] that people don’t use it much because of the stigma of calling that program, even though it’s confidential. But we have seen that once we have a conference, you see more people calling the line.”

Normalizing mental-health care, panelists said, is why open communication is so important. “Not every conversation has to be about work,” Geofroy said. When the employer opens the door to talk about what’s going on in their lives, employees are, in a sense, granted permission to do so.

Emily Stirling, employee social well-being manager at Intermountain Healthcare, said her team encourages peers checking on peers. Some workers are not comfortable confiding in their managers, but are comfortable talking to a coworker, parent-to-parent. “We’re trying to normalize conversations about mental health so that it’s not something that someone has to take on alone.” The expectation is not that workers should solve their peers’ problems, but understand how to listen and point them to the appropriate resources.

Even so, Ovia Health co-founder and chief product officer Gina Nebesar said employers should not expect employees to speak up about their needs. Because of that, resources must be broad and easily accessible.

“One thing we do is not necessarily overestimate someone’s ability to self-advocate and know that they have risk factors for depression,” said Nebesar. “One thing our program does is deliver depression-risk screeners,” which, she said, is helpful not just for acute care, but also for knowing when to seek preventative care.

Panelists agreed that flexibility must be a part of employee mental-health care. Give employees the ability to easily step away for therapy or a nap, allow employees to design their work schedules and hours. Cut unnecessary meetings and activities to free up employee time, and make meetings available on playback for those who cannot attend live, or don’t need to.

But ultimately, any practice or policy will fail unless leaders model healthy behavior and openly participate in conversations about mental health. “The biggest thing for us is just modeling self-care,” Young said. “I often am giving feedback to leaders in the organization: If you’re working from six to nine, your employees are going to think they have to work from six to nine also.” Adukia says she tells her team why she’s taking time off, and labels her calendar with the reason: Mental Health Day.

The group also recommended equipping senior leadership to talk about mental health with employees. “It’s really important to keep your senior leadership team focused on self-care and talking about it, and also mental health in general,” Young said.

Yet few business leaders are equipped to do this. That's why Intermountain Healthcare created guides that leaders can use to identify and talk about issues like burnout, stress and depression. Stirling said the goal is not for managers to play the role of therapist: “They don’t have to solve the problem, but connect people to resources.”

Many of the changes fostered by the pandemic are good ones: wider acceptance of remote work, better communication within organizations, and agile workforces.

Adukia identified another development that’s especially important for working parents: “We finally killed this concept of work-life separation. I remember when I started working, people would say, ‘Leave your personal life at the door.’ That’s impossible. That never was possible,” she said. “We have to embrace the whole being, the whole person, and understand that the whole being shows up to work. I think that’s been a gift that the pandemic has given us.”

In Young’s experience, supporting the whole employee has created a more unified and effective workforce at KinderCare. “We support our centers and hence our children and families, the most important people to us, so much more efficiently and so much more holistically than we did before, and I think that’s something we will take with us.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.