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KEEPING WORKING PARENTS ON THE JOB

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Belonging and a Culture of Caring

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Reading Anita Sands’ terrific article on belonging led me to return to the Harvard Business School report on “The Caring Company” (2019).

After surveying more more than 300 companies and their employees, authors Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman alert employers that they are facing a caregiving crisis, whether or not they acknowledge it.  They stress that when these employees sense a lack of support at their jobs, they hide their caregiving responsibilities.  Caregiving includes caring for children, including children with special needs, and elderly or disabled family members.

What are the costs to the employee?

When caregiving employees face expected and unexpected caregiving responsibilities, additional emotional, physical, and financial stresses are heaped on top of “normal” routines.  The HBS study finds that these results lead to:

  • Decrease in individual productivity due to caregiving distractions and work interruptions

  • Unexpected loss of work time:  late arrival, early departure, and missing full work days

  • Reduced career ambitions

  • Decrease in well-being, both physical and emotional health

  • Shortened work hours 

  • Increased possibility of leaving a job altogether

  • Disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities falls on women

What are the costs to the company?

  • Productivity decreases due to work intrusions and shortened working hours

  • Depletion of talent

  • Loss of experienced employees, especially the younger and highest paid workers

  • Cost of hiring and training new employees to replace employees who have left their jobs

  • Lost institutional knowledge

The HBS study concludes that caregiving responsibilities directly contribute to employee turnover. 

“We can’t achieve balance and belonging without the individual actions of each of us every single day.“

— Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian

 My focus is the effect on parents of children with special needs.   For more than 20 years as a special education attorney I have helped parents of children with disabilities obtain an appropriate educational program for their child.  Parents often tell me that they don’t share their child-related concerns with their employers — not just the problems they face, but even the fact that their family includes a child with special needs.  They are afraid that their supervisors will see them as less worthy and less committed to their jobs.

And, parents of these children very often share that they feel that they have two jobs — their “day job” and their “other” job trying to put out fires relating to their child, on top of the daily challenges raising a child with special needs.  When a crisis hits, parents report that work intrusions increase.  My experience is that most parents are so overwhelmed with daily life that they wait until a crisis to seek legal help to improve the child’s educational program.  Waiting to understand the legal framework and how it applies to their own child’s situation means that the the child and the family lose precious time because the parents don’t know how to get started.

I don’t claim to be an expert in HR or Diversity and Inclusion.  As I began to focus on Special Ed Legal Consults,  I reflected on how difficult these parents found work-life integration with the challenges of caring for a child with special needs, especially when the child isn’t receiving the appropriate educational program the child needs and is entitled to.  When the child struggles and even regresses due to the lack of appropriate services, parents can’t help but be distracted, worried, and often stuck. 

Adding to their burdens is the concern that their family issues intrude upon work performance.  So wouldn’t reaching these parents earlier, before a crisis, help avoid these negative consequences?

The goal is to support employees’ needs while increasing productivity and reducing turnover.

I believe I am the only attorney in the country offering an in-person, confidential, one-to-one, two-hour special education legal “checkup" to sit down with an employee at his or her workplace in an employer-supported program.  We review the child’s key educational records together, focus on the relevant legal framework, and develop a step-by-step action plan to improve the child’s educational program.  The goal is to provide these parents with effective strategies to apply to their child’s individual situation so that they can take steps to help the child before a crisis occurs.  Parents usually have difficulty translating online resources to the barriers their own child faces.  It’s the difference between using webMD and going to your own doctor with a problem. 

When the school system fails to meet its responsibility to provide an appropriate educational program to children with special needs, parents suffer too. Services must address a child’s educational needs, including emotional, social, behavior, communication, physical, adaptive, and health needs in addition to academics.  When school programs meet the child’s needs, parents’ wellbeing improves because the entire burden of helping the child is shared, rather than falling only on the parents’ shoulders.

Whether or not these parents fall under the diversity umbrella, companies can direct inclusion and belonging initiatives to these employees. Although this segment of the employee population may be relatively small, the impact of empathy and multi-faceted support to these employees can be powerful.

The numbers are increasing.  The HBS study references other research that indicates that diagnoses for multiple, serious conditions have exploded in recent years.  One in 150 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2000; by 2014 the numbers increased to one in 59.  Estimates for children between ages 4-17 with a diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) were 6.4 million in 2014, up significantly from 4.4 million in 2003.


The HBS study authors conclude that change is needed to protect both the company and the employees.  To foster a culture of care, they urge employers to:

Develop a visible, systemic plan to help employees balance their personal and professional lives, with emphasis on reassuring employees that openness about their caregiving responsibilities will not result in being directly or indirectly penalized for their caregiving responsibilities

  • Ensure employees are aware of current benefits

  • Survey employees to learn their caregiving responsibilities and their feedback about current benefits

  • Anticipate that younger workers have needs relating to caring for children, if not currently but in the near future

  • Target segments of the employee population, likely yielding unexpectedly higher returns on investment than companies anticipate

  • Offer new benefits that address needs not currently met, either on a permanent or experimental basis

My suggestions:

  1. In the company’s survey, add a specific question about whether an employee’s caregiving includes caring for a child with special needs

  2. If the company offers a caregiver provider referral service, make an effort to include providers that care for children with special needs — if you think it is difficult to find childcare for typically developing children, imagine the difficulty finding childcare for children with special needs

  3. Think out of the box — in the employee survey, suggest other possible benefits or perks that would ease the additional stresses of raising a child with special needs (or other segments of the employee population)

When parents learn how to get started to improve their child’s educational program, they feel a great sense of relief.  They move from feeling overwhelmed and stuck to feeling less stressed and more empowered.

Because most parents would be unaware of this innovative program, it’s unlikely parents would ask for it.  The same holds true for other employee demographics and other programs to address specific needs.  Let’s remember, nobody ever asked for an iPad before it was marketed.

In addition to asking for suggestions, it’s vital that companies research programs that specifically target different segments of the employee population.  By understanding that employees’ caretaking needs vary, the benefits must vary too.

And as Anita Sands remind us, belonging is a feeling and psychological safety is key.  Empathy goes a long way too.