Raising a teenager not only is stressful but also can be a distraction for an employee. Newly minted driver’s licenses, latchkey after-school arrangements, bullies and school violence, unhealthy relationships, concealed depression—those are just some of the shadowy dreads that preoccupy parents of adolescents, who often feel helplessly torn between job and family responsibilities.
“I worry that I may miss a sign that something is wrong, like drug experimentation. I worry about my daughter walking home alone from the bus stop and into an empty house,” says Robin Carden, a full-time registered nurse in private practice and the mother of toddlers and a teenage daughter. Carden’s concerns about her older child’s safety from 9 to 5 are typical.
Compounding Carden’s fears are her frustrations with what she sees as her employer’s lack of sensitivity about the teenager’s needs. “My company seems to be more tolerant of my younger children needing me. My teen needs me as well, but they don’t recognize that.”
For example, she says, when her preschoolers are sick, “I can easily call in absent to work to stay home with them. But if my teen has a concert during school hours or has to be at basketball practice at 4 p.m., I have to beg, borrow and steal to get time off or leave early. I believe that teens whose parents don’t take an interest in their lives are the ones who tend to choose the wrong path, so I want to be there for her as much as possible.”
Working parents of teens are under a great deal of pressure when school is out, says Carol Sladek, work/life consultant for Hewitt Associates, a global HR outsourcing and consulting firm headquartered in Lincolnshire, Ill. “Younger children may seem more needy in terms of maintenance, but parents feel some control over the child-care situations they are put in. As children get older and more independent, parents lose this control and must spend more time and effort in vigilance. Family tensions from the night before spill into the workplace the next day.”
There’s no simple fix, but employers are beginning to realize that they need to support parents of teens in specific ways to ensure productivity and retention, says Sladek. “What we see most from these parents is a demand for more-flexible time. After the layoffs and restructuring of the past year, many employees are working harder and longer, so the push is on employers to give time off in smaller segments—an afternoon here, a Friday there.”
At the same time, employees are seeking effective parenting tools. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) and resource and referral programs are filling the void creatively. For example, United Behavioral Health in San Francisco supplies a spectrum of work/life, employee-assistance, behavioral health and disability support programs to 25 million employee members.
Recent studies bear out Carden’s instincts about her daughter’s needs. A new analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Adolescent Health indicates that the best way for parents to protect their teenagers from risky behaviors is to be available for them.
“Frequently, we see that when young people are close to their parents and family, they are less likely to report involvement with health-risk behaviors,” the study concluded. “Parents need both the skills and support to develop and maintain close, caring relationships and connect with their children as they progress though teenage years,” a feat that has become more difficult as “work demands increasingly encroach on parent and family availability. When we as a society do not support parents to be effective as well as available, teenagers suffer.”
Baby Boom Echoes
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the 12-to-19 population is the largest it has ever been—31 million—and will grow to 34 million by 2010. The rise parallels the growth in households in which both parents work full time, translating into millions of teens left alone at the end of the school day and in the summer—including those on the lower end of the age scale. One in five American 14-year-olds spends some time alone during the parents’ working day.
Children without adult supervision are at significantly greater risk of poor academic performance, truancy, stress, risky behavior and substance use, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign in Washington, D.C. The rate of violent crimes—murders, sexual assaults, robberies and assaults—committed by and against juveniles triples on school days between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., according to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
Such serious family problems are bound to precipitate stress and lost productivity in the workplace. Consider, for example, an employee whose ninth-grader has failed to phone upon arriving home from school. Half a dozen calls and one missed staff meeting later, even when the teen has been located, the employee is much the worse for wear.
“Parents’ chief concern is how to keep their kids busy and out of trouble—particularly those age 13 to 15, who are too old for child care and too young to be on their own all day,” says United’s CEO, psychologist Saul Feldman. Parents also want to be free to attend their teens’ sports events and performances, and to meet with teachers during the work day.”
Parents also worry that teens are being exposed to violence, sexual activity, drugs and alcohol. “That stuff is much more in-your-face these days,” says Feldman. “Media exposure has made teens much more sophisticated. Parents are not clear what they can do about it and feel guilty that they are not present in their teens’ lives. We call it absent-parent syndrome.”
Unfortunately, older children of working parents “often do feel somewhat abandoned and have the perception that parents care more about work than them,” he says. “It’s always a challenge to find family time.” HR can expect productivity declines in working parents who feel guilty and have trouble coping with these family issues. “Besides being a social problem, this is an economic problem.”
HR can offer resources to help parents cope. For example, United’s Life Solutions program offers a web site that contains parenting tools, a help line for employees and family members, services to help workers manage their time and home lives better, and referral services for everything from private tutors to substance abuse programs. A separate module for supervisors encourages them to help troubled staff members seek out these services.
Making such low-profile, hands-on options accessible to employees helps remove the stigma of mental and behavioral health interventions, Feldman says. “If a parent suspects a psychological problem with a teen, they can talk to a counselor at Life Solutions before contacting a mental health provider. This is a bridge to other services, but in many cases is all that’s necessary.”
Build Your Own Support System
Some employers are cultivating their own in-house resources for parents, supplementing EAP programs with onsite educational programs and flexible leave policies.
For example, Arizona State University’s Work/Life Balance program serves three campuses and 17,000 employees, many of whom have teens at home. Lunchtime educational programs, facilitated by psychology department faculty members, local providers and other experts, tackle topics such as blended families, sexual abuse prevention, communicating with teens, social and emotional development of adolescents, and managing attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The university also hosts summer activity programs for kids.
But perhaps most critical to parents of teens is the university’s flexible leave policy, which enables them to deal with emergencies and attend counseling sessions.
During the teen years, “it’s really easy for children to get engaged in the wrong social groups or to want to test relationships with parents,” says Connie Wood, director of HR programs at Arizona State’s three campuses. “We’ve had a number of situations where a teen was skipping classes and getting involved in the wrong crowd. Sick-leave policies should enable parents to flex their schedule so they can attend sessions and deal with some of these problems.”
Getting supervisory buy-in is always a consideration, so the university’s HR department deploys a cadre of HR partners—internal consultants who work with directors and deans to help them understand the work/life program and encourage employee use. “We try to look at these things from a systems perspective; that has helped a lot,” Wood says.
Managing their own programs gives employers the added benefit of responding quickly to employee needs. Ernst & Young, the global financial services company based in New York, offers a range of services to parents through its EY/Assist program, including a daily e-mail newsletter sent to all 23,000 employees, with links to a web site of topical articles and resource listings.
“A couple of months ago in the news was a teen in Connecticut who was having an online relationship and was abducted. We responded immediately with information, an article and a number parents could call for advice,” says program director Sandra Turner. “After high-profile school shootings, or during prom time, we can put reminders out there with links back to EY/Assist.”
Ernst & Young also organizes parental support groups in which employees discuss topics facilitated by licensed professionals. One of the most popular has been a multiple-session program called The Tween Years, which tackles communicating with preteens about alcohol, drugs and other risks.
Hewitt’s Sladek notes that such programs can be very cost-effective, and return on investment isn’t hard to determine. “After putting these programs in place, HR can track absenteeism, productivity and even retention. It’s easy to get a measure on what you’re saving. Most employers are getting a nice return,” she says.
“Many, many employers have tackled the basics of work/life and are looking for ways to enrich their programs and add value,” Sladek says. Extending useful tools to parents of teens is one way to do so.
Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.