Employees With Special Needs Children: No Longer Flying Under the Radar

Debra Schafer

Let’s face it…there are personal things that we just don’t like to talk about. Yet put on the TV and commercials for constipation and a host of other personal issues blanket the airwaves. For some, these topics create discomfort. For others, disbelief. Yet it’s precisely this discussion and dialogue that gets people talking and talk generates action.

In the workplace, people simply don’t want to talk about personal issues that might makes others question their ability to deliver. This is why an issue that affects at least 8% of the workforce – employees parenting a child in special education -- has been flying under the radar for years. Calculate the number of employees, lost hours, and linked work and family impact and you discover huge organizational hemorrhaging. But solutions can shift these losses into gains.

Back in the early 90s, working mothers returning from maternity leave brought an indecorous topic (at least it was then) to the fore with the result being the institution of lactation rooms in many corporations. Pumping breast milk down the hall from the Monday afternoon departmental meeting? Unheard of, until working mothers started making their voices heard, moving what was previously regarded as solely a "personal issue" to an integral part of employee benefit offerings.

Here was a solution that was low-cost, highly-valued, and consistently utilized with the added bonus of catapulting many of these corporations to the "Working Mother" and "Fortune" best companies lists. A win-win for the corporation and the employee with a direct impact on productivity, retention, and positive external visibility.

Fast forward to today and organizations are offering employees options for elder care, pet insurance, and discounts on consumer purchases, providing choices for millennials through boomers and demonstrating a responsiveness to the changing needs of the workforce. Yet despite increasing mainstream media coverage about the numbers of children and teens being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD and learning disabilities, corporations have yet to recognize and look for ways to support this segment of their workforce – mothers and fathers, C-level executives and support staff – who are struggling to help their children in school. Recognizing this as a critical employee need only seems to happen when a senior executive or HR Director has personal exposure to the issue and even then, it lacks the attention and level of support it warrants.

For these parent employees, helping their children – from preschool through their transition to college or employment, build their academic, social, and other life skills is a task requiring their 24/7/365 involvement at levels unmatched by employees whose children do not experience such struggles. It is often a 12+ year journey where living on a pendulum that constantly swings between chronic and crisis issues is the norm. Their lives are affected in virtually every area from workplace productivity and retention to finances, marriages, and emotional and physical health. That’s why it’s often referred to as "exceptional caregiving".

Issues of lateness, absenteeism, and lack of engagement only scratch the surface as many employees are often forced to reduce their non-required job responsibilities, work part-time, pass on promotion opportunities, or leave the workforce entirely. In two-parent households, one parent often needs to remain at home, sometimes full-time and other times as the result of a crisis situation. And in single parent households or for those without a strong local family support network, the challenges are insurmountable. Talk about a work/life balance crisis.

One study showed that employees spend an average of 11 hours per week caring for their special needs children. Another showed that 48 percent of parents caring for a child with special needs are forced to leave the workforce entirely. Statistics start to paint the picture yet here’s what is really happening…

A Marketing Manager with eight years of experience in the organization has a son just diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is in 2nd Grade and has already been asked to leave two preschools, been suspended in 1st Grade, and has been removed from the classroom seven times with the principal calling the parent again to pick the child up from school…and it’s the first week in October.

From using sick time to handle ongoing school meetings to struggling to facilitate the scheduling and financial aspects of evaluations and ongoing therapies, balancing their role as parents of special needs children with their roles as integral players in the profitability of their corporations is simply overwhelming. Juggling takes on a whole new meaning when the call from school arrives 15 minutes before a critical meeting. What takes priority?

So what can be done? Assessing employee needs through a simple survey can determine the depth and breadth of the issues, the results of which are typically eye-opening for organizational leaders. Establishing an office or private space where employees can respond to school or therapist calls and can research special education issues. Providing smartphones (or discounts) to help employees juggle therapy appointments and school meetings. Implementing targeted employee support networks and groups. Training managers on how flexible work options and other approaches can help support and retain these employees. Solutions that are low-cost with high utilization.

With benefits ranging from adoption to eldercare and vacation time banks to pet insurance becoming commonplace, corporate America has recognized that anything that affects an employee’s ability to focus impedes their ability to function. With the numbers of children in special education rising faster than the services and supports available, the responsibility for helping employees navigate the education system with highly individualized support is a requisite component of any work/life or employee assistance initiative.

The radar screen is fast becoming filled with thousands of green bleeps, requiring a collaborative effort between the employer and employee to ensure that every bleep arrives safely. And as leading organizations begin to address these issues, parent employees and our future workforce will quickly come to expect nothing less.