For employees and employers, the work environment changed irrevocably with the COVID-19 pandemic. Working from home and hybrid work options are now a standard for many businesses but, like responses to the pandemic itself, this new work ecosystem presents a lot of unknowns that result in a collective, “How will I/we ever manage this?” for both parties.
Companies attempting to get people physically back at work, at the very least in a hybrid model, need to look at these unknowns holistically and consider how the personal lives of employees have also changed.
Now, as the rubber band of our society attempts to snap back to some version of “normal” and business’ physical locations reopen doors to workers, there can be a responsive hesitancy to ask for continued flexibility in work location.
Across this summer of 2021, many organizations ranging from small, ten person teams to the mega companies like Boeing are starting conversations with employees about returning to work and priorities involving childcare. Such a forward thinking strategy can prevent stress for parents when it's back to school time at summer’s end.
But what about caregivers for the elderly? These folks don't have a summer break.
The time is now.
The Fear of Asking
A lot of employees carry a fear of asking for accommodations with schedules and work location because the economic impact of COVID left so many unemployed. They’re thinking, “Why would my company keep me if I want specific accommodations over somebody else who doesn’t?” This fear is especially present for women because they were laid off in disproportionately higher numbers than their male counterparts.
Now consider COVID-19’s impact on caregivers and their accommodation needs. Some took a loved one in because these caregivers were able to be at home. Others removed their loved one from a facility out of understandable concern over that environment during a pandemic. Many people with personal care attendants and vulnerable immune systems paused PCA support and a caregiver already in the household took those extra duties on as well. Not all of these changes brought extra stress; caregivers realized that it’s feasible to work from home and also give that necessary care. Additionally, caregivers saw the economic benefit of staying at home and want to continue to save.
But the stigma of asking your employer to allow you work flexibility for a caregiver role persists despite the employment landscape shifting under everyone. Workers feel that asking to stay at home to care for a child is more palatable than the same request to take care of an elderly loved one.
What didn’t change during the pandemic is the need for caregivers in our society.
- 1 in every 5 employees are currently caring for an adult
- 1 in 3 employees will at some point leave their positions for caregiving responsibilities; with 70% of them leaving senior leader roles
- 70% of Gen X and boomer caregivers are female, while...
- Millennial caregivers now divide that role in a near 50/50 female-male split
If You Don’t Ask, The Answer Is Always, “No”
At Caregiven, we want to encourage employee-caregivers to ask for flexibility. If people feel empowered to share what they experience in their personal lives as it relates to impacting work, that vulnerability creates a better team.
On the other side of the conversation, we support HR departments that have many programs already able to accommodate caregivers in Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) but might not be able to easily communicate these support lines to employees.
Getting HR department staff and employees into a constructive conversation on the topic is a start to reshaping the work paradigm of a post-COVID world and meet the massive need for caregivers our society faces. Considering another’s perspective creates empathy and that sentiment -- as rooted in organizational culture -- results in better business outcomes.
We’re not proposing a radical overhaul of employee benefits but want to supplement them with slight tweaking. And we’re not trying to tell caregivers they’re doing anything wrong but to instead source solutions during this time of change.
Confronting the Stigmas
As an employee, it’s a much more common conversation to say, "My baby needs me,” than, “My mom has dementia, was in social isolation for the last year, lost her spouse, and we're going through a transition time where she's worried about living on her own because that hasn’t happened for 35 years."
How do we start these conversations and/or how does an employer invite them as well?
The majority of these employee-caregivers make up the Sandwich Generation -- people in their 40s with kids under 18 living at home who need to be proactive for parents in their 70s and 80s. Workers, particularly women, struggled (and still do) to receive good maternity leave and paternity leave, but these benefits only relate to childcare. Bringing up a version of this conversation again for elder caregiving shouldn't be a hardship. There also exists a “mommy-child” guilt: employees can already feel like neglectful parents for working instead of staying home with their children only to pile on extra worry about an elderly parent. And the specific stigma around this is rooted in a culture that downplays elderly care.
Another issue to be aware of is the differences in employment structure. If a salaried professional doesn’t work between 4:00 and 6:00 pm because they’re taking a child to a doctor's appointment, this parent-employee can work from 6:30 to 8:30 pm that evening. But a significant portion of the working population lacks that flexibility. If they miss one to two shifts, their job is at risk. They don't want to go to their boss and say, "I need an accommodation," because some industries with set working schedules previously lacked flexibility.
Even salaried professionals in leadership positions face this challenge, only in a different context: imagine being a senior director at a marketing agency with big corporate clients. Communicating caregiving issues can tarnish people’s impression of the work you deliver. Some of these professionals ultimately quit their high-stress, high-paying jobs to be a caregiver only to face returning to a changed work environment years later.
It’s Difficult to Ask for Help… But It Doesn’t Have to Be
Advocating as an Employer
If you have 50 employees and 10 of them are informal caregivers, the financial impact on your company is lost productivity. Then add the human cost. Good companies care about employees as people. You'd much rather have a 40 year employee than ten four-year employees. One in every five employees cares for an aging or ailing adult. That is 20% of the workforce. Between 50-70% of informal caregivers can be diagnosed with depression: this makes for ineffective staff and creates health issues for employees that insurers don’t want.
When work drops in quality and employees aren’t their normal selves, employers still need to be careful around asking for personal information. HR staff sometimes don't know all the resources within their packages or they are wary of suggesting, "Hey, did you know that we have a product through our EAP that can be applied to your caregiving needs?"
The challenge is for an employer to get the information they need to really help employees without prying. Often, work is put on an already stressed employee to check out the EAP offerings. So even better phrasing on the part of HR is, "Did you know that through our EAP, you have access to an elder caregiver tool?”
If employee benefits already exist to cover various personal challenges then we can start by broadening them. HR managers could apply the same principles of mental health, a child with special needs, or childcare to caregiving needs. Employee assistance mental health could then transform into family counseling. A loved one with healthcare needs might be put in the same category as a child with a learning disability. And we could take the model of child care and adapt it.
Thinking through the lens of caring for an adult and how an EAP could help families with their elder caregiving responsibilities is a start.
Self-Advocating as an Employee
Saying, "My mom has dementia," is more difficult than, “my son has an upcoming surgery.” Yet what percentage of employees have children versus what percentage of have parents who do or will need care? While you're caring for another adult, it doesn't mean that you're not managing logistics, emotions, and finances -- somebody else's or your own.
Caregivers have much less control when caring for an elderly or a sick person than their own child. You can't control when mom calls you in the middle of a breakdown, even though she doesn't want to bother you.
Here are some sentence strategies for starting the conversation with your employer and advocating for your caregiving needs. Asking for flexibility to care for a loved one is no different than doing so for a child.
- Self-advocating strategies and guides to requesting work flexibility from 1 Million for Work Flexibility
- Adapt this guide from Mothermag to follow their process on advocating for flexibility
How Do Women in the Workplace Find Advocates? Start with Caregiven
We're not trying to tell caregivers that they're doing anything wrong. We want to share tools to identify needs and source solutions within existing ecosystems. Caregiven is a translation device. In healthcare, what tools exist to help us navigate Medicare? It's not by getting Medicare to change; it's by understanding the rules, modifying them to your needs, and then making the case.
Depending on whether you're in HR or a hesitant employee-caregiver, we’re here to help you boil the complex down into more simple elements.
How can you create opportunities for employees to strike a work-life balance that lets you, as a company, retain them? The financial wellbeing of your employees is a priority for everyone but the situation remains particularly trying for women.
We’ve had many conversations that revolve around the thesis question: “Where are all the female leaders?” Oftentimes the answer is: taking care of an elderly parent. The statistics around a woman who leaves her career to care for her aging or ailing loved one show that she will lose about $600,000 of income -- likely late in her life. She'll never recover that income or her benefits.
Soon, given the millennial caregiving split, we will see 50% men and 50% women becoming primary caregivers, and we can expect the same financial implications.
If you drop out for a year and lose your health benefits and income to take care of mom, then she passes away, you go back to a new job and have to wait six months to have health benefits.
That's crazy. So are the economic stats here. In her Washington Post op-ed, Melinda Gates directly relates caregiving to restarting the COVID-19 decimated economy. She writes, “To ensure a fast and inclusive recovery, governments, business leaders and investors need to make caregiving a priority.” This particularly impacts women -- who bore the brunt of the economic fallout -- because “workers with caregiving responsibilities ... need increased flexibility from their employers. Some companies have rapidly scaled up remote-working capabilities, which, if kept in place, could actually improve recruitment and retention of female employees in the long run.”
We can fix a broken caregiving system with the momentum from workplace changes post-pandemic. As a Time’s Up article on business teaming up to approach employee healthcare and caregiving infrastructure revisions states succinctly: “Our economy cannot reach its full potential without women, and women cannot reach their full potential without a reimagining of care.”
You Also Have a Friend in HR
Company leadership spends a lot of time being thoughtful about mottos and culture perks -- Do we have blueberry kombucha on tap?
We want to encourage employee-caregivers to have an opportunity within company culture to speak up about their needs. This starts with leadership. Some companies offer pet insurance and let staff bring dogs to work. Who doesn’t love dogs, right? Maybe HR needs to connect the dots and say, “Through our EAP, you have financial planning resources available specific to caring for an elderly loved one.”
Or asking how tuition reimbursement helps if an employee wants to take caregiving classes. That’s a novel but beneficial avenue to explore. In fact, a top-down assessment of an employee benefit package by simply saying, "Here's how this benefit manifests itself in an elder caregiving or adult caregiving scenario" is a great idea to bring to leadership. Some employers organize groups for caregivers and bring in topical speakers for lunch-and-learns. Then, the entire workplace recognizes the stresses of elder caregiving. Doing this as a business leader, you create a community of stakeholders who look out for one another. That lightens the load for everybody, and it takes away the taboos.
Let Your Voice be Heard
Forward thinking companies were shifting culture prior to the global pandemic. AllVoices is one such example of an innovative company that wants to help employees and employers. They provide anonymous feedback tools for employees to communicate concerns, share ideas, and ask questions without fear of retaliation.
We believe that Caregiven and other humanist, employee-centric companies can be the device to translate the complexities of caregivers' lives and HR program benefits in ways that sponsor dialogue and productive changes.
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