When Employees are Caregivers

Recently, I attended a conference for the families and caregivers of children with a rare genetic disorder that’s generally accompanied by a wide range of special needs. It quickly became obvious that everyone in attendance was highly committed to ensuring the best possible outcomes and quality of life for their loved ones. The amount of time and energy required to deliver on that commitment was, in many cases, extraordinary.

Photo by Philippe Leroyer, Flickr

So how, I wondered, do they juggle personal and professional commitments on top of the extra demands of supporting a child with special needs? How on earth do they…

  • provide hands-on care;
  • coordinate medical appointments;
  •  maintain relationships with partners, other family members and friends;
  • manage a household;
  • deal with the added financial strain; and, in many cases,
  • still hold down a full-time job?

Of course, special needs children are not the only family members needing extra support. As our demographics shift and the population ages, many employees are becoming primary care-givers for elderly parents—sometimes multiple sets of them!

What’s worse, some caregivers get caught in a vise, where they’re squeezed between the competing needs of both these challenging scenarios.

Why Employers Should Care

Whether or not an employee is also a caregiver is a personal issue, so why should employers care? Because good help is hard to find. When that good help takes on the added burden of caring for an aging parent or special needs child, inflexibility at work will impact their health and work performance first, and eventually retention will suffer.

If you think this situation is unlikely to affect your workplace, consider the fact that 29% of the U.S. adult population (approximately 65 million people) are currently caregivers to someone who is ill, disabled or aged.[1] Furthermore, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving, almost 73% of those caregivers also work.

A 2006 study[2] by the MetLife Market Mature Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving found that the cost to U.S. companies in lost productivity ranges between $17.1 billion and $33.6 billion annually.  And that’s just for the eldercare component.

Whether your primary driver as an employer is attraction and retention of talent; employee well-being; or productivity and the bottom line; supporting caregivers makes sense.

What Can Employers Do

While employers can’t make any of these life challenges go away, they can do a lot to make them more manageable, including

  • Offering in-house support, flexible work hours, telecommuting, or job-sharing when possible for caregivers.
  • Understanding responsibilities as an employer and respecting employees’ rights under FMLA.
  • Training supervisors and HR departments about discrimination issues related to caregiving.
  • Making sure employees know they won’t be demoted, laid off, or overlooked for promotion if they talk to their manager about caregiving demands.
  • Ensuring that human resource departments are ready to help employees with caregiving concerns.
  • Developing a targeted caregiver support communications campaign to let employees know management is aware of the realities of caregiving and have services available to support employees.
  • Holding educational seminars and webinars about caregiving and related issues (e.g. stress management, self-care, etc.
  • Sharing information about available supports and resources available through HR and/or employee assistance programs.
  • Encouraging workplace support groups.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open. Letting employees know they are valued as people.

More information on EEOC’s best practices for dealing with caregiver employees is available here.

What Some Companies are Doing to Help

While many companies are slow to respond to the growing reality of caregiver employees, some have acknowledged the implications and started offering help. For example, AARP[3] identifies the following programs, offered by progressive employers, as exemplars in supporting employee caregivers.

  • On-site eldercare — Oakwood Health care
  • Long-term insurance for parents, in-laws, grandparents and grandparents-in-law — Cornell University
  • An elder care office providing guidance, counseling and referrals — University of Kentucky
  • Out of pocket eldercare expenses with tax-free dollars — SSM Health care
  • Freddie Mac has a free eldercare consultant and access to subsidized aides for a relative up to 20 days.
  • Verizon Wireless offers seminars on eldercare issues and allows full-time workers 80 hours a year in back-up care, 40 hours for part-time and $4/hour for in-home help.
  • At the Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird LLP, workers can donate vacation time to colleagues who have used up theirs to care for family members.

Other organizations identified[4] as trail-blazers in supporting caregiver employees include;

  • CBS, Duke University, Intel, and Kimberly-Clark who provide everything from eldercare referrals to $4-an-hour back-up eldercare and up to 10 days of paid time off for family illnesses.
  • GlaxoSmithKline and the Alzheimer’s Association who offer flex time, on-site support groups and manager training that focuses on the needs of caregiving employees.

Most employers acknowledge that employee retention and engagement are key contributors to business success. High levels of employee health, well-being and happiness generate higher levels of engagement and improve retention. Providing support, education, compassion and flexibility for employees, who are stretched to capacity by personal caregiving responsibilities, is guaranteed to pay dividends across all of these metrics.


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Additional Reference:

Martie Gillen and Carolyn S. Wilken. Balancing Work and Caregiving: A Guide for Employers http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy873

[4] Identified by the National Alliance for Caregiving and a corporate caregiving coalition called ReACT in a report entitled Best Practices in Workplace Elder Care http://www.caregiving.org/pdf/research/BestPracticesEldercareFINAL.pdf

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