The Influence of Children’s Mental Health on The Great Resignation
One-third of working parents report changing or quitting their jobs in the past two years because of their child’s mental health
This 2022 study follows The Great Collide, which was a first-of-its-kind national look at how children’s mental health needs affected U.S. working parents, their work performance, and the degree to which they hoped their employers would be able to provide resources and support. With business leaders and the American workforce still adjusting to the impact of “The Great Resignation,” and with so many employees making new choices about how family and work priorities can co-exist, On Our Sleeves set out to understand the ways children’s mental health may be contributing to parents’ job changes even in 2022.
The reality is children’s mental health and well-being continue to impact parents’ work and influence their job decisions, underscoring the realities employers across the nation face as they balance employee well-being and corporate success. Disruptions due to children's mental health can reportedly lead to the inability to handle job stress, focus on work goals, take pleasure in work, and more. Yet only a small percentage of working parents—those who perhaps feel a sense of safety in their job—feel comfortable expressing concerns about their child’s mental health at work.
This study combined in-depth online discussion with 49 working parents and a national survey with another 1,975 parents in the workforce. The mental health of children remains a concern of the large majority of working parents, with almost half of all parents reporting that in the past year their child's mental health has been somewhat or extremely disruptive to their ability to work on most days.
Below are four key insights for employers who want to understand how to solve for critical employee issues and be part of the solution to the national children’s mental health crisis:
1. THE ZONE OF UNCERTAINTY: A fragile time for caregivers
The concept of children having mental health concerns is rather universally accepted by working parents. But for some, getting help for their children is not a straightforward process.
The vast majority of working parents acknowledge that kids can experience mental health challenges:
The Parent Voice"The stressors that parents face today are far more intense than what we grew up with respect to social media, sexuality, gender identity, racial, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and the resulting behaviors that kids act out." Micheal*, non-Hispanic White, Gen X working father
A majority (83%) of the 1,975 parents surveyed said they were at least somewhat concerned about their children’s mental health, with more than half (52%) saying they were very or extremely concerned. More than half (59%) of working parents surveyed say this concern has arisen since the start of the pandemic. Just over half of working parents (51%) have sought professional help for their child.
During in-depth online conversations with 49 working parents, they shared details about their parenting experiences over the past year:
The Parent Voice"I have sought help everywhere I could. First with teachers, then administrators, a long process of evaluation, therapists, counselors, psychiatrists. It has been a full-time job to advocate for my child since the pandemic. I have also tried to reconnect friendships, arrange fun activities, and offer open and compassionate communication. My child is still struggling, and it is a constant work in progress to try to help him and advocate for him." Jennifer*, non-Hispanic White, Gen X working mom
The journey from symptom onset to professional help is not linear or short. In fact, national data shows that patients with early onset (childhood or adolescence) of mental health disorders experience significantly longer delays—average 10 years—in making their first treatment contact than patients who experience onset in adulthood. (Delays in Initial Treatment Contact after First Onset of a Mental Disorder, Phillip S. Wang, et al, Health Serv Res. 2004 Apr; 39(2): 393–416.)
Parents who have NOT sought professional help for their child explained why they had not: 15% said they are still deciding what to do. Another 12% have a child not receiving treatment due to access issues (waiting list, no openings, no providers.)
This leads On Our Sleeves to conclude that, on our model of the mental health continuum, there are families who are neither in what we call the “Diagnosing/Managing” zone, nor in the “Fostering Development and Skill-Building” zone. In between these can be a period of questioning whether a child’s current situation is “just a phase” or is serious enough to warrant treatment. We call this the Zone of Uncertainty, and parents may find themselves here on and off again as a child develops.
We have reflected The Zone of Uncertainty in the mental health continuum with the addition of “Wondering/Deciding” to represent this experience.
2. GENERATION PIVOT: The parents bringing children’s mental health to light
A mental health-focused generation—comprised mostly of Millennial parents—is at the heart of many of the recent job shifts of the COVID-19 era.
Many parents in the study described being the first generation in their family to openly address child mental health concerns as part of child-raising. In fact, only a few of the 49 parents in the in-depth discussion group grew up in a household where mental health was discussed—and some grew up in families where mental health was stigmatized.
The Parent Voice“Mental health was not discussed in the home I was raised in or among family—and I come from a very large family. I think it was frowned upon or looked at in a manner that suggested weakness or excuses for one’s behavior and/or lifestyle.” Charles*, Black/African American, Gen X working father
The Parent Voice“Mental health conversations in my family were nonexistent. As a kid I remember having troubles, but the fact that I did not have anyone to talk to about the way I was feeling made me feel like I had to bury those emotions. I think it was something passed from my parent's generation, their parents did the same thing to them. I realize it was not right to raise my kid the same way and decided to start learning once he was born. I know how it feels to just suffer in silence and I did not want that for my son.” Sofia*, Hispanic, Millennial working mother
In a related national survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of On Our Sleeves, tides appear to be changing. The survey found more Gen Z and Millennial adults somewhat or strongly agreeing that their family talked openly about mental health while they were growing up:
However, this still shows almost half of young adults today were raised without overt conversations or examples of how to parent in ways that are mindful of children's mental health. The study shows differences in attitudes and behavior compared to older generations.
We call them “Generation Pivot” because of the sharp change in trajectory they're demonstrating in their families.
While members of this group do tend to be younger parents, it is these attitudes and behaviors related to children’s mental health that define them:
- They're seeking information and discussing the topic with like-minded people they trust, which in some cases is not their family: Using the Family Support Scale, which measures the amount of perceived support given to the parents of young children with disabilities, On Our Sleeves learned that Millennial parents perceive broader and stronger support from a list of 19 sources whereas Gen X parents perceive fewer sources as being at least "generally helpful" in supporting them in caring for their child’s mental health.
- They spend more of their workday thinking about their children’s mental health: Millennial working parents reported spending a higher percentage of their work hours thinking about their child’s mental health than their Gen X counterparts.
- They are seeking mental health services for their children: Millennial parents in the study’s comparison group (44%) were more likely to have sought professional help for their child than their Gen X counterparts (38%).
- Generation Pivot parents have higher expectations of their employers—Millennial parents in the study’s comparison group (37%) were more likely than Gen X parents (31%) to agree that they would leave a job if the employer did not offer child mental health benefits.
The Parent Voice“I changed jobs because I used to work at a global company … I now work for a larger, domestic, flexible company that allows me to keep my job to 8-5 so I don't have to be on global calls all hours of the day/night. Working remotely offered such a bigger field of opportunity.” Hannah*, non-Hispanic White, younger Millennial working mother
3. BREAKING POINT: When parents feel forced to choose between work and home
When facing disruption to their work and concern for their child's mental health, a sizable number of working parents in the study told us they had shifted their job arrangements, quit altogether, or anticipated doing one of those in the coming year.
Almost 1 in 3 working parents in this study expressed higher levels of concern and work disruption related to their children's mental health. These parents were classified as Mental Health Disrupted (n=540) and were analyzed against a comparison group (n=1,435) of working parents. MHD parents are more concerned about their children's mental health: 81% of these parents fall in the Very to Extremely Concerned categories, while in the comparison group, parents were more likely to be Somewhat Concerned (35%) Not Very Concerned (18%) or Hardly Ever/Not At All Concerned (6%).
For Mental Health Disrupted parents, interruptions at work due to children’s mental health needs take a bigger toll, being more disruptive to their ability to focus, succeed, and feel positive about their work.
- More parents in the Mental Health Disrupted group (79%) report missing work (taking a day off, leaving early, coming in late) at least once per month due to their child’s mental health than parents in the comparison group (39%).
- Utilizing the Stanford Presenteeism Scale (SP-6), On Our Sleeves determined that MHD parents (18.04) report significantly lower mean total scores of presenteeism than working parents in the comparison group (21.83).
Mental Health Disrupted parents feel less able than comparison group parents to:
- Handle job stress
- Finish hard work tasks
- Take pleasure in work
- Feel hopeful about finishing work tasks
- Focus on work goals
- Have the energy to complete all work
The extended periods of time locked down at home with their children in 2020 and 2021—and the opportunities for reconnection they afforded—gave many working parents a galvanized sense of priority for family time.
The Parent Voice“It is a time issue. Working hours are much longer for everybody. Jobs are no longer just 9 to 5. We often have to work outside of work hours. This means there is not enough to take care of family and personal issues. So a child's mental health needs and support would be competing for time with a parent's work engagement.” Kai*, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Gen X working father
When asked what working parents who are trying to care for their children’s mental health need from their employers, specifically, On Our Sleeves heard:
- Flexibility in schedule
- Acknowledgement and understanding
- Paid time off
The Parent Voice“I am fortunate that my employer is family-friendly and flexible. I stay very loyal with my company largely because of how much I appreciate their family-friendly mentality. ” Elizabeth*, non-Hispanic White, Gen X working mother
A notable portion of working parents surveyed appear restricted in their ability to be a working "parent":
These parents are in untenable situations. When dissonance occurs—through work policies or culture—and parents feel placed in a position to choose between their child and their work, more and more parents are saying "enough!" In 2021 when job opportunities increased and the war for talent escalated, many parents took opportunities to upgrade to a job with better flexibility and/or mental health benefits for their child.
Overall, one-third (32%) of working parents in the study changed or quit their job in the past two years because of their child’s mental health. Among Mental Health Disrupted parents, this decision was more prevalent, with 54% reporting changing or quitting their jobs in the past two years due to issues related to their child’s mental health.
The Parent Voice“I know of a handful of friends who switched to working from home and requesting flexible work schedules so they could be closer to their families (and kids with mental health issues). They seem more loyal to their companies and happier overall because their employers were willing to make that accommodation. ” Philip*, Asian American and Pacific Islander, younger Millennial working father
The Parent Voice“I could absolutely see how a child’s mental health could impact one to cause them to leave the workforce. I have a friend who resigned from a six-figure salary to stay at home to care for his mentally challenged daughter who is 14. He and his wife felt that doing so would be the best thing for them and their child.” Robert*, Black/African American, Gen X working father
Nearly three-quarters (72%) of working parents who were surveyed said “jobs that provide their children mental health benefits and resources are more attractive to me than jobs that do not offer such benefits.”
The Parent Voice“I moved to a company to get better mental health benefits for my son, and to have a much better and flexible work schedule and workload. At my previous employer, there were mental health benefits, but I paid the vast majority of the premiums (85%) while my employer only paid 15%. At my current employer, the premium percentages are now reversed, the co-pays are much lower, and the selection of professionals is much broader.” David*, non-Hispanic White, Gen X working father
4. SILENCED BY STIGMA: How children's mental health can drain diversity
A majority of working parents, especially diverse employees, do not feel safe sharing their children’s mental health concerns openly at work. Employers can and should assume child mental health concerns are a latent issue for a majority of parents of all backgrounds in their organization.
Working parents are least comfortable talking with Human Resources (30%), their boss/supervisor (39%) or co-workers (47%) about their children’s mental health needs. Therefore, employers may be the last to know that an employee is struggling with their child’s mental health. This effect may be more pronounced within certain race, ethnic or gender groups.
The Parent Voice“People who are non-minority have always been afforded certain better privileges and rights…For example, if you have a non-minority who calls out because of their children, usually the company is lenient. Take that same instance but make it a minority and it’s been proven that they are more likely to be seen as a "bad worker" and fired due to bias and prejudice. So, of course the person would NOT call out because they CAN’T. It’s not an option...and they don’t have the option to not be productive or even to place their child above the job for a day because they need the job and need the income. ” Lucas*, Hispanic, younger Millennial working father
The Parent Voice“Luckily, my job is flexible. But as a woman I often feel pressure to not let home interfere with work.” Kayla*, Black/African American, younger Millennial working mother
The Parent Voice“There's still a stigma attached to mental health because people don't like to talk about it like they talk about other diseases. It seems like anyone can have a physical disease and talk about it with family and friends, but when it comes to mental health, not many people are open to indicate that they have some mental issues.” Marie*, AAPI, Gen X working mother
Working parents of different races and ethnicities differ in the impact a child’s mental health has had on their employment in the past two years:
- 37% of Black/African American Mental Health Disrupted parents report having changed working arrangements in their current role (i.e., asked to work remotely, reduced hours, less responsibility) because of their child’s mental health compared to just 26% of non-Hispanic White Mental Health Disrupted parents
- 66% of Black/African American Mental Health Disrupted parents reported changing jobs or quitting working in the past two years because of a child’s mental health compared to 51% of non-Hispanic White Mental Health Disrupted parents
- 33% of Hispanic parents in the comparison group reported changing jobs or quitting working in the past two years because of a child’s mental health compared to 28% of Black/African American and 22% of non-Hispanic White parents
The Parent Voice“I left my job to adjust my schedule and workload around my kids. My kids were suffering, and I was too exhausted to come home and address things going on. I knew I needed to let the job go because it was affecting my entire household.” Jada*, Black/African American, younger Millennial working mother
On Our Sleeves is committed to providing evidence-informed educational resources to every community in the U.S. In 2021, the organization conducted a quantitative survey and online qualitative discussion groups to assess the perceived disruption of children’s mental health on working parents’ ability to work and overall business impact.
The goal of this 2022 study is to explore parents’ attitudes and beliefs about child mental health issues and their connection to work, and understand the role that children’s mental health issues/concerns and benefits/resources play in influencing parents’ employment decisions.
A nationally representative sample of 1,975 working parents participated in a 25-minute online quantitative survey between April 15 – 28, 2022. Participants completed a purpose-built survey comprising both closed- and open-ended questions asking about working parent demographics and their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors related to children’s mental health and their work life.
In addition, between April 26–30, 2022, 49 qualified working parents/guardians were invited to participate in an online bulletin board qualitative research experience using QualBoard® from Schlesinger Group. This methodology was selected due to its ability to cost-effectively gather a larger, geographically-dispersed sample while providing a level of anonymity that puts participants more at ease while discussing sensitive topics.
In order to best support parents and caregivers in your organization, consider hosting an open discussion on children's mental health and the workplace. Use this guide to start the conversation.