(Photo by FatCamera/iStock by Getty Images)

Before he began his presentation, “What Back-to-school Looks Like for Working Parents in a Post-pandemic World,” Mike Civello acknowledged that he had been amending and retooling his remarks several times since he started putting them together. Which was highly relatable from the point of view of parents, since that’s what they’ve been doing too.

“We started May and June with a more optimistic view regarding the fall schedule,” said Civello, the chief business development officer for Whil, A Rethink Division. “Unfortunately, the Delta variant is throwing a wrench into the plans of many employers and employees as well,” said Civello, whose company provides a digital well-being platform. Civello spoke at From Day One’s August virtual conference, “Learning From a Crisis About What Working Parents Need.”

The shifting school schedules–including virtual learning, the hybrid model, and in-person schooling–have been highly disruptive of family life. “It's making the aspect of being a working parent and caregiver very stressful,” he said, pointing out that it affects a huge part of the population: up to 60% of the American workforce plays a parenting role. “Increasing caregiving demands are a leading driver in employee mental-health concerns.” And caregivers are two to three times more likely to experience mental-health issues than other employees, Civello said, citing a survey. “Parents often appear hesitant to raise concerns because they don't want to be perceived as a problem. They suffer in silence, which leads to mental-health concerns at work,” he continued.

His company’s particular concern is parents of neurodiverse children, not only a vulnerable population intrinsically, but one for whom, in Civello’s words, “a good amount of the education still falls on the parents.” Mental-health care costs for such parents are twice as high as for parents of neurotypical children, and the medical costs for their children are twice as high too.

Mike Civello, chief business development officer (Photo courtesy of Whil, A Rethink Division)

The company’s approach is to provide board-certified behavior analysts, who focus on caregivers and parents through one-on-one conversations. “What we do is tele-consultations, such as calls and video chats, to answer questions and implement strategies,” said Angela Nelson, VP and executive director of clinical services for Whil, who joined Civello for the presentation. In addition to being a learning-theory expert for children and adults alike, Nelson has school-age children, who have to wear their masks all day and can’t play with their friends in other classes, since the teachers try to keep them in pods. “But they get to be in school all day,” Nelson said with a note of gratitude.

In-person school is just a step in a long recovery period, Nelson said. “Even though we're starting to heal, the scars are still here.” Both Civello and Nelson said they often hear from parents about feelings of guilt. “Their parenting role, their role as an employee–people are having a hard time feeling successful and efficient. That's tied in with a lot of family guilt,” said Nelson. “I relate to this as well. I don't feel like I am excelling at anything.”

Going back to school, alas, does not mean resetting the clock to March 2020. “There's a lot of worry about transitioning back to school after being out for 18 months,” Nelson said. The main concerns revolve around learning loss and missed social-development opportunities. “Some kids entirely missed preschool and are going directly to kindergarten, so that's a big leap.” Added Civello: “There's also academic regression and we can't make up for lost time. Parents are trying to shoulder that burden.”

Angela Nelson, VP and executive director of clinical services (Photo courtesy of Whil, A Rethink Division)

What parents and caregivers seem to need the most, Civello and Nelson said, is a proactive and preventative approach in creating a culture of well-being. As of now, there's mainly a focus on treatment after the fact.

“What we learned during the pandemic is that, if we don't give them a sense of well-being, people are going to have a hard time responding under stress,” said Nelson. Well-being does not mean lofty advice. “Parents need digestible, practical tips. They need to be better trained,” said Civello. They have to be better prepared for any number of disruptions to their children’s behavioral and emotional development, including academic regression, isolation, loneliness, and trauma. And they shouldn’t have to go it alone, since so many parents are in the same boat.

Employers can lead by example by taking advantage of their PTO policy and respecting the limits of work hours, especially when the pandemic and hybrid work have blurred all the lines. “Listen to your employees,” Nelson urged. “Gone are the days employees had to settle with what employers decided. If you can't grant every request, at least give some choices.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership spotlight, Whil, A Rethink Division.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.