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This is Part 1 of our blog series, Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Neurodiversity among children is on the rise. This is largely due to increased awareness, diagnostic techniques, and medical technology. A recent study conducted by the CDC found that one in six children aged 3-17 years old had a diagnosis for developmental differences, such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. Many of your employees are parents working a double shift—40 hour work weeks alongside the never-ending duties of raising children. This can be uniquely difficult when parents are raising children with developmental differences. As companies continue to address widespread burnout, stress, and anxiety, HR leaders can benefit from being aware of the additional challenges carried by employees who are raising neurodivergent children.
This is also key to bettering employee retention and building healthier workplaces.
Neurodiversity in children
Harvard Medical School defines neurodiversity as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” Some of the ways neurodivergent children develop differently often include variations in how the brain is wired, including in areas such as:
- Sensory information processing
- Learning and intellectual development
- Motor skill development
- Social interactions
- Behavioral development
Challenges for working parents of neurodivergent children
Working parents raising neurodivergent children often face significant challenges while navigating daily childcare, full-time jobs, shouldering financial burdens due to a need for specialized medical and therapeutic care—along with the toll of stress, anxiety, and burnout from balancing all of these complex dynamics.
Figuring out childcare is a daily burden
One in three working families struggle to access childcare. For working parents of neurodivergent children, it’s even more difficult to find quality childcare able to accommodate the needs of their children. Whether an employee works full time from the office, from home, or does hybrid work, there are challenges around schedule flexibility as it relates to childcare. Working parents of neurodivergent children need to be able to take their child to medical appointments, occupational therapy, or may need to leave work to take care of unplanned issues that arise. Even parents able to work from home face daily challenges in finding space to work while caring for their children. Mo Shuheb, Senior QA Engineer at Spring Health, describes the daily challenges of caring for his nonverbal, autistic son while working: “I’ve always been a remote worker, but since my son turned two, additional challenges presented themselves out of nowhere and it’s a constant back and forth.
My wife is his full-time caregiver, but she gets exhausted and needs a break, too. That’s when I need to step in to help, step back to work, and step away to help again. It can become stressful on a day-to-day basis. And it’s not like it becomes stressful after a few weeks. It can become stressful after a couple of hours.
Mo talks about how simple daily routines such as dressing, feeding, and getting his son into the car can take several times as long as they might with a neurotypical child, and how exhausting the accumulated stress is for him and his wife. This type of daily stress can easily turn into anxiety, and Mo has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder Figuring out how to ensure their children are adequately cared for while they are working is the cause of significant stress for working parents, particularly those with neurodivergent children. This is something to keep in mind as we think about how HR leaders can support these employees.
The mental health toll
Parents who work full time while raising neurodivergent children are often overwhelmed, and have little time for self care or to attend to mental health concerns. When daily life consists of working for eight hours and spending before and after work hours caring for a child with developmental differences, burnout is almost guaranteed.
Mo shares the mental health challenges of working from home while caring for his autistic son:
A lot of days I am very, very overwhelmed. I’ve been diagnosed with high-level anxiety, and when something goes wrong or even close to wrong at home with my son, I have to hop away from work. This sets off a chain of events and my mental health deteriorates really, really quickly. And then I have to try to switch my focus back to work. It’s really tough, and a huge challenge.
It’s clear that working parents need support from their employers to help mitigate the burdens of working full time while raising neurodivergent children. So what can HR leaders do to help?
Supporting employees with neurodivergent children
There are policies and specific, concrete ways of structuring the workplace that HR leaders can advocate for and help implement, to directly improve the day-to-day lives of employees raising neurodivergent children.
Respecting scheduling boundaries
The pandemic upended the traditional work week schedule, in which employees spend 40 hours in the office, 9-5. Hybrid work and more flexible working hours are now common within many companies, as new technologies allow for employees to stay connected with their team from any location, even with asymmetrical schedules. These developments are positive for employees navigating the challenges of raising neurodivergent children, as they are able to better balance work responsibilities with the neverending work of childcare. It’s important to allow employees to set boundaries around their boundaries—even when flexible schedules are agreed upon—and then create an environment where those boundaries are respected. For example, if an employee has scheduling flexibility and is working from home, they may start work early so they can finish early and pick up their child from school or daycare. If this type of schedule has been discussed and approved, then supervisors should be aware and not schedule team meetings during the late afternoon. It may take some extra work to accommodate flexible schedules, but it’s worth it for the end goal of supporting employees' mental health, making work sustainable for them, and therefore increasing retention.
Easing the financial burden
Specialized childcare facilities, occupational therapists, and other forms of medical support can easily become massive expenses on top of the already huge costs of child raising. A survey of working parents found that 85% of parents are spending more than 10% of their household income on childcare. The rate is even higher when adding in specialized care. Childcare subsidies are a major indicator of worker loyalty and better retention. Parents can’t work if they can’t afford to have their children cared for.
A survey of working parents notes that, “a full 67% of respondents who don’t currently receive employer-subsidized childcare say that they’d be more loyal to their current job if they did (and this increases to 74% for those with children under 4). What’s more, 60% of them say that their job performance would improve if they had this benefit.” For a majority of people, financial concerns are the number one stressor in their lives. Raising children is one of the largest ongoing expenses many of your employees are dealing with, and for working parents—especially those shouldering the costs of specialized medical care and therapy—childcare subsidies provide immediate and noticeable relief.
Fostering connection and support
It’s critical to create community and support networks for working parents of neurodivergent children. An employer could develop a dedicated Employee Resource Group (ERG) for employees who are raising neurodivergent children to connect, share their challenges, and discuss resources and solutions. Being heard and sharing experiences with people who understand what you are going through is one of the most powerful tools humans have for better mental health outcomes and mitigating isolation. Offering comprehensive mental health support for employees and their family members is another way. Spring Health provides therapy for kids ages six and up, and both therapy and coaching for adults.
Better retention and healthier workplaces
HR leaders are in a position to help better their employees' quality of life while they are raising neurodivergent children. The day-to-day stressors and challenges of balancing work with childcare, dealing with financial burdens, and the toll on mental health can be mitigated through workplace policies that specifically address those challenges. Supporting employees in this way gives companies the ability to attract and retain top talent, one of the main concerns so many companies are currently facing.
Read this blog next to learn how to build a workplace where autistic employees can flourish.