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Parenting Education Helps Employees Focus on Work

October 1, 1994
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Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
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As you settle back to read this article, kindly do not allow any family distractions to interfere with your concentration. If your teenager is pushing the limits with you during every waking moment, of course you won't be thinking about that as you read. If your 4-year-old is asking alarming questions about sex, just put that out of your mind. If you're wondering whether your second-grader may have a learning disability, forget that for a few minutes, too. Reading this article is a work-related activity.

You wouldn't dream of worrying about these issues while you're at work, would you? After all, would you worry about your upcoming presentation to the board of directors while you're at home?

If you're like most people, you probably have a difficult time keeping those worlds separate. The worries of one leak into the other. The danger of carrying work stress home has been an issue for a long time. Less widely recognized is the parenting stress that's carried to work and eventually robs employees of their concentration and productivity. Hence, the additional stress has encouraged many companies to include parenting education in their work/family, wellness and employee-assistance programs. By offering parenting seminars to employees, increasing numbers of employers are responding to the fact that work stress and family stress both travel two-way streets.

Does parenting education belong at work? Many U.S. corporations have answered that question: They already provide the training. In fact, among Fortune 500 companies, at least 60% offer parenting-education programs, according to Gene Cooper, president of New York City-based Corporate Counseling Associates, Inc., a national employee-assistance and managed-care company. Cooper says that for such companies, the question isn't whether to offer parenting education, but which services should be offered. "Parents who work are looking for education about child development. Their normal sources of parenting-education exchanges—extended families living nearby, chats with other parents at the playground or park—are gone. Working parents don't have opportunities for parent exchanges among families or peers."

Rebecca Powell, director of Lincolnton, North Carolina-based Workforce Park: A Children's Place in Lincolnton, agrees. She directs a child day-care center for two local employers, United States Hosiery Corp. and Cochrane Furniture Company, Inc. "Nowhere along the way do you ever take a 'Parenting 101' class," she says. "Now that it often takes two working parents to support a family, parenting education absolutely belongs in the workplace."

Northridge, California-based Great Western Bank's corporate headquarters has offered parenting education since 1990, two years before its onsite day-care center opened. The company's work force is young. The average age is 34, and 70% of the employees are women, according to Phyllis Austin, manager of benefits and compensation. Many of them have several young children and a full range of unanswered questions. If they couldn't get information about parenting at work, Austin says, "some would be inquisitive and seek it out. Others wouldn't be aware of the issues or the resources. They don't have time to search out information otherwise because they're too busy managing work and home."

Austin believes that parenting education at the workplace is a preventive approach to work/family problems. "There is definitely a long-range return. You can't measure effectiveness right away," she explains. Parenting-education programs are offered under the work/family component of the bank's comprehensive wellness program. "The fact that so many of our employees attend these programs [shows] that they feel comfortable in the nonthreatening, nonjudgmental atmosphere we've worked to develop," she says.

In terms of a workplace market, the Washington, D.C.-based National Center of Health Statistics reports that in 1992, 80% of the women in the work force were of childbearing age. Also, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that between 1980 and 1992, there was a 21% increase in the total number of working women in the United States and a 34% increase among women who have children 35 months old or younger. In 1992, 1.9 million American women returned to work after having a baby; and among U.S. households that have working parents and children, those headed by single fathers increased the fastest, growing to more than 1 million. Clearly, both mothers and fathers are working more hours, perhaps even more jobs, to provide for the family, and they're getting less help from traditional sources.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. recognized in the 1980s that the demographics of its employee population also were changing. Once largely male, PG&E's employee group began to reflect the changes in the culture, including families' need for double incomes and the increase in women among the company's professionals. (Approximately 45% of PG&E's managers are classified as female or minority.) Employees had new needs. Fortunately, the company had enough foresight to offer competitive benefits packages that addressed work/family issues, says spokeswoman Shawn Cooper. The company has worked with a local agency in Sacramento, California, to bring in speakers who are doctoral-level child-development specialists. Some of the topics have included why children can't be treated the same way in all situations and how to respond when one child makes the honor roll and the other child demonstrates lackluster classroom performance. Of PG&E's 2,500 employees, more than 500 have attended the seminars.

Courtney Murrell, manager of fitness programs for Apple Computer Inc., agrees that workplace demographics and shifting social needs drove Apple to begin marketing parent-education classes to its entire Cupertino, California, work force last January. "Our average age is 34, and our employees are feeling more stress due to greater workloads and reorganization in the Silicon Valley." Apple offers such classes as Getting Your Child Ready for Kindergarten, Sleeping Issues for Newborns to 3-Year-Olds and Discipline for Parents of Toddlers and Pre-Teens. "The programs give the employees peace of mind and the tools to handle their personal lives better, making them more productive on the job because they can better balance life as a whole," Murrell says.

HR at Rochester, New York-based Bausch & Lomb Inc. agrees. Renee Noll, senior human resources representative, believes that "by helping our work force deal more effectively with family issues, our employees will be more productive and more focused." Employer benefits drive Holland, Michigan-based Donnelly Corp., says Jude Deanes, employee-program specialist. She describes the working parent who can find answers at work as one who can give more to the company, exhibits higher morale and is more likely to stay longer with the company.

Do employees benefit? Murrell believes that "the employees feel more in control. They feel like they have a grip on life and that their stress is reduced." Wendy Starr, manager of LifeCycle Programs and Policies at Xerox, says that their employees not only enjoy the convenience of worksite training, but receive free education and the comfort that its quality is probably high, since the employer has screened the provider.

Great Western Bank provides three- and four-week programs for parents of preschoolers, school-age children, pre-adolescents and adolescents. The seminars provide an overview of the family stresses that employees bring to work and don't know how to solve: sibling rivalry, drugs, peer pressure, disrespect toward parents, emotional distance, insensitivity to younger siblings and grandparents, self-esteem, sexuality, blended families, single-parent families, attention deficit disorder and general work/family issues. The most frequently requested topic has been on motivating children to study and overcoming homework battles. Employees at Bausch & Lomb frequently request a seminar called Safe at Home, a latchkey children's program that provides separate segments for parents and children, then brings them together for a final session.

"Parenting education can reduce stress and absenteeism. In addition, the communication skills learned in the classes work well with colleagues."

Such topic lists are familiar to Rona Greenstadt and Carole Mingus, Los Angeles-based parent educators who provide Great Western Bank's parenting-education sessions for parents of toddlers and adolescents. Both are master teachers for Los Angeles Unified School District and have extensive backgrounds in child development. Greenstadt, who has been teaching parenting education since 1981, believes that parent participants will be more productive and confident when their relationships with their children are going well. "When things aren't going well with a child, the parent is anxious. Parenting education can reduce stress and absenteeism and increase productivity." In addition, the communication skills learned in parenting classes work remarkably well with colleagues, too, helping employees who are parents to deal with on-the-job frustration and stress.

Mingus adds that parenting education in the workplace provides a place for employees to get their questions answered, encourages small-group support systems and increases employees' self-esteem in other areas of their lives.

The most vital educational components are the practical tools parents take home. In fact, "how to" classes are the main thrust of education programs at Apple, Bausch & Lomb and Great Western Bank. Bausch & Lomb's Noll says that the company's most popular classes are Helping Your Child with Homework, How To Best Communicate with Your Child and Financing Your Child's Education.

At Apple, the parenting programs that offer tools and practical applications are the most well-received, says Murrell. Great Western Bank's Austin adds, "These parents are seeking out information that they can take home and use with their preschooler or adolescent that evening."

What does a company do to be prepared to offer such programs? One method is to contract with a reputable provider, such as Corporate Counseling Associates, Inc. (provider for CondŽ Nast, Ralph Lauren and Digital Equipment Corp.) or Boston-based Work/Family Directions, (provider for Xerox, Bausch & Lomb and IBM). Employers also can find low-cost or no-cost alternatives in community resources such as the adult-education department of a local school district.

Getting management buy-in is crucial, however. Program administrators at Apple screen the presenters to ensure quality control. They review the presenters' backgrounds and materials, then arrange for personal interviews.

The more creatively the program is promoted, the more successful it will be. For example, employees can receive paycheck stuffers, fliers and the assurance that the training will be nonjudgmental. Also, registration should be easy. In the words of Xerox's Starr, parenting education "works best if it's part of a broader-based work/family strategy."

But word of mouth is still the best way to enlist support. Michelle Takeshita, an accountant at Great Western Bank, says, "My 4-year-old son, Landon, had a stuttering problem. The parent educator researched some articles, shared her own experiences (as a parent) and gave me a referral to a speech therapist. Now, Landon's doing fine." Takeshita saves the class handouts and refers to them whenever issues arise at home. What's the impact of the parenting-education program on reducing her family stress at work? "Fantastic," she says.

OK. It's fine now to return to thinking about that child of yours. And about that parenting program your company has been considering.

Personnel Journal, October 1994, Vol. 73, No. 3, 58-62.

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