Balancing work and life is a struggle for anyone with a job. But to a worker who’s also a family caregiver, achieving that balance can be difficult when outside obligations conflict with inflexible work schedules. And that’s not to mention the mental and physical stress that can come along with caregiving.
Caregiving is a part of life for a wide swath of American workers. About 60 percent of the 43.5 million family caregivers in the U.S. also hold full- or part-time jobs. That translates to roughly one in five workers, a significant percentage of the nation’s workforce. The majority of those employed family caregivers work nearly 35 hours a week, and then spend a sizable chunk of their off-hours providing unpaid care to their parent or other family member. In fact, caregivers typically provide 24 hours per week of care, leaving little time for themselves. Yet many say they cherish their ability to be caregivers.
In workplaces across the country, the need to take care of family caregivers is becoming a business imperative. Business owners, managers and coworkers must increasingly be mindful of employees’ caregiving responsibilities. A recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that roughly 60 percent of caregivers said they had cut their paid working hours, taken a leave of absence, received a warning about performance or attendance, or experienced some other significant impact to their job situation as a result of caregiving.
“When you come to work you don’t leave your personal life at the door. Understanding how caregiving affects employees is important for part for their well-being – and for the employee engagement that employers want.”
— Dr. Hyong Un
Not surprisingly, there can be significant longer-term impacts on caregivers’ careers, another study has found. Many caregivers may choose to retire earlier than planned to fulfill caregiving responsibilities, or delay job searches so they can remain caregivers. For those who are able to successfully balance their work and their caregiving responsibilities, there can still be a lot of stress. Nearly 55 percent of caregivers said they felt overwhelmed by the amount of care their family member needed.
One of the most striking statistics: Almost 40 percent of these caregivers did nothing to seek help for themselves.
Common workplace strategies
Caregivers find a variety of ways to manage their day-to-day job responsibilities and their caregiving roles. According to the AARP study, about half of working caregivers say their employer offers flexible work hours (53 percent) or paid sick days (52 percent) that they can use to address caregiving responsibilities. Nearly a third (32 percent) say their employer offers paid family leave. About 22 percent say their employers allowed them to telecommute.
In addition to flexible work and paid time off, many workplaces have additional resources that can help employee caregivers. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are one. These programs, which are often part of a company’s benefits plan, are available to help employees navigate the confusing maze of caregiving. These programs are typically staffed by counselors and social workers who are deeply familiar with the caregiving process and available resources. For example, one of the most common reasons people call Resources for Living, the EAP offered by Aetna to plan sponsors, is to get caregiving advice.
“Caregiving is new territory for a lot or people,” said Brooke Wilson, head of Worklife Services at Resources for Living. “Our team can help them in doing a lot of the legwork to identify options and services that are out there. A big bonus is that the employee is not doing this while at work.”
Wilson said Aetna’s Resources for Living can help caregivers find everything from providers and nursing homes to home health aides or dog-walkers. A typical call to Resources for Living saves the caller about seven hours – nearly a day’s worth of work for an employee caregiver.
Employees helping each other
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are another way that employee caregivers are finding support in the workplace. These employee-led efforts act as logistical and emotional support group for employees with a common interest – like being caregivers.
“So many people feel like they’re the only ones going through these challenges,” said Maureen Spring, a senior project manager at Aetna who is also a leader of the company’s Families@Work ERG, which has a caregiver focus. “It helps for them to see that they aren’t alone.”
Aetna’s Families@Work ERG has about 300 active members who connect and talk to each other face-to-face and through the company’s in-house social media network. They also attend occasional information sessions and discussions focused on caregiving issues. One of the most common refrains in these conversations, Spring said, is the need for employees to take care of themselves.
Encourage caregivers to take a half hour and go for a walk, or get a massage, or go exercise – anything that can help manage stress.
“Caregivers are very selfless and tend to feel guilty about doing things for themselves when they know that others are depending on them,” Spring said. “It helps nobody in the long run. That’s why we try to encourage caregivers to take a half hour and go for a walk, or get a massage, or go exercise – just do something for themselves to fight stress.”
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of caregiving – the toll it can take on the person providing the care. In the workplace, employers need to make sure their workers take care of themselves, said Dr. Hyong Un, chief psychiatric officer for Aetna Behavioral Health. “When you come to work you don’t leave your personal life at the door. Understanding how caregiving affects employees is important for their well-being – and for the employee engagement that all employers want.”