When a family member is seriously ill, unpredictable caregiving needs can make it difficult for employees to juggle their work and home responsibilities. Depending on the illness, caregiving needs might stretch on for many years or even decades while the caregiver simultaneously holds down a job.
Family caregivers represent a wide range of ages, incomes and cultures, so their needs aren’t all the same. Some live with the person they are caring for, and others are performing caregiving duties, like attending telehealth appointments, from a long distance away.
“Caregiving is as much a logistical challenge as it is a physical, emotional and financial one,” said Lisa D’Ambrosio, a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab in Cambridge, Mass., which studies the experiences of family caregivers. “Seeking information on where you should go for help is a job of its own. It’s often one that caregivers find themselves doing alone.”
About 24 percent of Americans born from 1957 to 1964 provided elder care, with women providing elder care at a higher rate (27 percent), compared to men (22 percent), according to a 2021 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some employees have paid vacation days they can take when they need to care for a sick family member. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for an employee caring for a spouse, child or parent who has a serious health condition. Some states have similar laws guaranteeing paid or unpaid leave to care for a sick family member.
“In addition to offering adequate paid leave, employers should check to make sure their leave policies reflect the fact that families come in all forms,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst for the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “Can your employees use their sick leave to care for an aunt or grandfather, as well as a spouse or for chosen family, which is especially important to support workers with disabilities and LGBTQ workers?”
Outside of paid time off, the benefits caregivers said they used most and found the most helpful were flexible scheduling, remote work, reduction to part time, job sharing and specialized caregiver services, according to a 2021 report from the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in Americus, Ga.
Employees who used these types of benefits reported lower levels of emotional stress and less difficulty handling the time demands of work and caregiving. Those working in smaller companies and those being paid hourly are less likely to have access to these types of benefits, the report found.
Some employers partner with vendors that provide counseling and resources to employees seeking assistance with elder care or dependent care. Elder care resource and referral services, including geriatric care management services, are sometimes available through an employee assistance program.
“A strong benefits package is a must, including those paid-leave and flexible work options, not to mention health insurance, so caregivers can look after themselves as well,” Mason said. “Perhaps equally important is to cultivate a work culture that explicitly values and supports caregiving and understands that caregiving needs may change or be unpredictable.”
Executives and supervisors can set an example with their words and actions when they personally use caregiver benefits. “Don’t tout great caregiving benefits but penalize employees for actually using them,” Mason advised.
The biggest challenges that family caregivers cited, according to Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, were:
- Emotional stress of handling both job and caregiving responsibilities.
- Too time-consuming handling both job and caregiving responsibilities.
- Lack of time for self-care.
- Difficulty with scheduling doctor’s appointments and treatments around a job.
- Dealing with interruptions or distractions related to the family member’s care while at work.
Nearly 2 in 10 employed family caregivers said they had to quit their job, and more than 4 in 10 said they had to go part time because of caring for their loved one.
Stress and Turnover
When employers don’t do much to support family caregivers, the downsides could include more stress and burden on the caregiver, inefficiencies during the workday, decreased financial stability, and increased financial strain, according to Laura Gitlin, an applied research sociologist and dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
In addition, “employers that don’t support caregiving risk a lot of turnover, meaning lost knowledge and skills, and shrink their potential hiring pool dramatically,” Mason said. “Neglecting to support caregiving can also impact an employer’s ability to recruit and retain a diverse staff. Even when family caregivers stay in an unsupportive job, their productivity and morale will suffer. Nobody does their best work when they’re triaging care needs and dealing with an unsupportive manager at the same time.”
Employers don’t always know exactly how much family caregiving is affecting their workforce. Twenty-two percent of family caregivers said they would have concerns about disclosing their caregiving status to their supervisor. They reported feeling worried about being fired, discriminated against, or judged unfairly by their supervisor and co-workers, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers reported.
“All of us will be a caregiver or have provided care at some point in a life,” Gitlin said. “This is a universal experience, but in most, if not all, cases, families are left on their own to figure it out.”
SHRM has compiled resources for employers looking to support employees who are family caregivers.