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The mental health needs of working parents are more nuanced than employers may realize
It’s never been more necessary to talk about mental health in the workplace. Droves of workers reported feeling mentally unwell in the past year. This may come as little surprise: The pandemic caused a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression across the globe, according to the World Health Organization.
Despite the dire state of workers' mental health, employees say that their employers could do more to reduce mental health stigma. In fact, research shows that many workers want organizations to support their mental health, but few feel that they actually do. Even when companies take initial steps toward worker wellness, they sometimes botch the follow-through. Some employees report employers fail to properly promote the resources they offer.
As businesses set out to change their approach to mental well-being, it’s important their strategy be nuanced. People experience mental health challenges in different ways, and it’s no different at work. We at BetterUp wanted to investigate the mental health challenges faced by working parents — a group of employees whose well-being suffered greatly because of the pandemic. The data revealed the challenges that most threaten working parents while illuminating the varying experiences of different demographic groups.
Which issues diminish parents’ mental well-being?
In May 2022, BetterUp Labs collected data from 502 parents working full-time in the U.S. with one or more children living in their households. We asked parents to rate the issues that affect their mental health the most. Inadequate pay was the issue that drew the most attention from respondents. Poor management, toxic culture, inflexible or long hours, and lack of growth opportunities followed.
The data revealed noteworthy patterns when split by demographic. Our sample included 69% mothers and 31% fathers. The majority of our respondents (70%) were white, while 14% were Black and 16% hailed from other ethnicities.
When we examined responses from mothers and fathers, we found the groups to be affected by different issues. Mothers’ mental health was more impacted by inadequate pay, toxic culture, and interpersonal conflict. Fathers, however, demonstrated greater distress over workplace politics and a lack of autonomy.
These distinctions highlight a potential difference in the way mothers and fathers experience the workplace. Vastly more mothers than fathers said toxic workplaces and interpersonal conflict impact their mental health. The only similar category where more fathers than mothers reported mental health impact was workplace politics.
The data raises an important question: Do mothers more frequently encounter discrimination and hostility at work? The question has been asked before, though more broadly. A study published in 2018 by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that women experience more workplace hostility — behavior that is often perpetrated by other women.
Distinctions in parents’ mental health emerged among parents of color and white parents, as well. POC parents’ mental health was most affected by toxic work culture (+29% vs. white). Meanwhile, white parents’ mental health was most affected by inadequate pay (+32% vs. POC). This was surprising as white parents in our sample outearned their POC counterparts — our respondents included 20% more white parents than POC parents who made above $50K per year.
It’s also worth noting that respondents of color were more affected by interpersonal conflict and politics at work. White parents’ mental health was more affected by long working hours. This distinction suggests that parents of color may more frequently face challenges related to discrimination — a reality that is well documented for all workers of color, not just those with children.
Wellness strategies need nuance
When controlled for demographic factors, the data illustrates an important concept: Mental health challenges come in different packages for everyone. Employers attempting to offer better well-being support should factor in diverse needs as they develop proactive strategies to empower their workers.
Organizations alarmed by the mental health impact of conflict and office politics reported by all parents may seek to foster more civility, for instance. Researchers point to reduced mistreatment after employers increase discussions about respect and consideration. Employee resource groups may also help boost inclusivity.
Employers will likewise need to take special care to dismantle the mental health stigma experienced by specific groups. Cultural beliefs and expectations are shown to discourage men from seeking mental health help, for example. Men’s mental health problems frequently go untreated, creating a crisis signified by high suicide rates and substance abuse.
It’s also important to consider the mental health challenges workers of color face. Research suggests that Black adults are 20% more likely to experience conditions like depression and anxiety. They more commonly report symptoms of emotional distress, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
Despite this elevated need, only a third of Black adults in need of mental health care receive it. What’s more, the U.S. Surgeon General reports that Black adults are less likely to receive care consistent with guidelines and are more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care doctors than mental health specialists.
To combat these discrepancies, employers may dig into allyship and dedicate specific efforts to support the mental well-being of Black employees and other workers of color. Employers can use their platforms to call attention to organizations serving some of these groups. They may choose to partner with external groups dedicated to fighting mental illnesses among specific communities.
As employers develop a strategy to offer workers greater support, they’ll likely roll out certain benefits: employee assistance programs, relaxation spaces, mental health self-assessment tools, coaching, and more. These proactive strategies are key to helping employees feel their best, but employers need to ensure these resources are selected, promoted, and supported in a way that fosters accessibility and participation among all groups.
Sr. Insights Manager