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Employers Must Do More to Support Caregiving Workers

Years ago, they took steps to help working moms. Now it's time to do the same for caregivers.

By Sherri Snelling | August 30, 2012
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Sherri Snelling, executive director at Keck Medicine of USC and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, as women entered the workforce in record numbers, employers recognized the needs of working moms and began to offer them flexible work schedules and services. Now it’s time for Corporate America to step up and offer employees — both men and women — support that will help them in their role as caregivers for their parents and other loved ones.
 
Nearly 73 percent of the 65 million people who provide care for a family member or friend work either part-time or full-time, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. Yet most employers seem to be in denial about the nation’s caregiving realities. 
 
Employers Cut Help for Caregivers
 
Over a decade ago, 24 percent of U.S. companies with more than 100 employees offered elder care or caregiving support through an Employee Assistance Plan or work-life program, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. The support included referrals to elder care services; directories of home health aides; on-site support groups; flex time; and geriatric care management services. But today, just 11 percent of firms that size have elder care or caregiving support programs.
 
Women are at a particular disadvantage, since they represent 66 percent of the nation’s caregivers. According to the 2010 Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s, nearly half of all women who worked and also cared for family members with Alzheimer’s wanted time off for caregiving but could not get it.
 
Of course, the sluggish economy has forced businesses to find ways of trimming costs. And since many employees aren't caregivers, it’s easy for companies to cut benefits.
 
Some Employees Are Secret Caregivers
 
But employers may not realize how many of their caregiving staffers wish their work environments were more hospitable to them. 

Offices are full of “closet” caregivers who fear that their bosses will think they’re not fully committed to their jobs if they also provide caregiving. Since the economic downturn, 50 percent of caregiving employees were less inclined to ask their boss for time away from work to care for an older loved one, according to a survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and UnitedHealthcare.
 
The Stress of Caregiving Is Costly
 
For years, the argument about caregiver support in the workplace has focused on employee productivity and its impact on the bottom line. U.S. businesses lose $33 billion a year because caregiving employees must come in late or leave early and take time at work on behalf of their loved ones. Caregivers miss nearly seven days of work a year, on average, to take care of loved ones.
 
But the stress these workers face — holding down jobs while providing caregiving, without relief from their employers — raises the firms’ health care costs substantially.
 
Chronic stress, depression and burnout increase caregivers' health costs to employers by 8 percent, on average, compared with other employees, according to a study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute and National Alliance for Caregiving.
 
For some, the stress of work and caregiving is just too much. So they quit their jobs, which leads them to suffer financially. Employees who left their jobs because they had to choose between work and caregiving gave up $324,000 in wages and benefits, on average, according to the MetLife/National Alliance for Caregiving study.
 
Yet numerous studies have shown that employers who adopt flexible workplace policies enhance employee productivity, lower costs and boost their recruitment and retention efforts. These positive results were borne out when employers began to offer working moms childcare services and flex time. Caregiving advocates believe similar support for working caregivers would benefit employees and employers alike. 
 
Businesses Providing Caregiving Support
 
A few companies and organizations get it. They’ve recognized the value of their caregiving employees and created programs to help them. A report released last month from the National Alliance for Caregiving and a corporate caregiving coalition called ReACT -- Best Practices in Workplace Elder Care -- showcases 17 companies and organizations that offer support for their working caregivers including CBS, Duke University, Intel, and Kimberly-Clark. These employers provide everything from eldercare referrals to $4-an-hour back-up eldercare (like childcare, but for adults) to up to 10 days of paid time off for family illnesses.
 
Other caregiving champions are pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline and Alzheimer’s Association, which offer flex time for employees, on-site support groups, and manager training that focuses on the needs of caregiving employees.
 
UnitedHealthcare has developed a program called Solutions for Caregivers for 500 employers as well as its own employees. It provides phone and in-person support and counseling from a network of geriatric care managers.
 
What Should Be Done
 
I’d like to see more employers follow suit. They should also train their supervisors and HR departments about caregiving discrimination issues, making it clear to all employees that they won’t be demoted, laid off, or miss out on a promotion if they talk to a manager about their caregiving responsibilities.
 
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has an excellent report that describes how employers should treat workers with caregiving responsibilities.
 
In addition, employers should hold educational events and webinars about caregiving and encourage workplace support groups. Instituting a flex-time policy would also help working caregivers remain productive. 
 
Advice for Caregivers
 
If you’re a working caregiver, I encourage you to read the Next Avenue article, "How to Care For Your Parent Without Losing Your Job."
 
You should also familiarize yourself with the rules of The Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid time off with job protection to workers caring for an ill or insured parent. (California provides pay beyond that period.)
 
And ask your boss or HR department about services offered by your employer that can help you juggle work and caregiving. If there aren’t any, try joining forces with other caregivers to create an informal support group or to encourage your company to institute formal policies.
 
Finally, be sure to take care of your own health. Otherwise, you could become too fatigued or ill to care for your loved one. Then who would provide that essential care?