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3 Top Ways to Juggle Work and Family Caregiving

It is never easy, but you may be surprised how understanding others can be

By Jane Meier Hamilton

Judy’s been late and absent several times this month because of a series of family health crises. These emergencies were beyond her control, but as a working caregiver, Judy worries about her supervisor’s reaction.

John’s family has come first throughout his wife’s long struggle with cancer. Because he also values his work team, he’s upset about blowing today’s presentation.

Susan’s decision to quit because of caregiving shocks her supervisor. There are ways her boss thinks she could have helped, if only Susan had come to her sooner.

Stress Is a Common Theme

Judy, John and Susan are not alone in their attempts to juggle work and caregiving responsibilities. Nearly 20 percent of today’s workforce is a family caregiver during “off-work” hours. They are people of all ages, races, genders, in all jobs and socioeconomic groups.

Caregiving impacts work performance; roughly 70 percent of caregivers report conflicts between work and caregiving. Juggling, as millions of employed family caregivers do, leads to increased absenteeism, workday interruptions and distractions, reduced hours, shifting workload to other employees, passing up promotions or assignments and taking a leave-of-absence or early retirement.

Trying to keep up with work, family and caregiving responsibilities can be daunting. Like Judy, John and Susan, many employed family caregivers fear dropping the ball, making mistakes or letting others down at work or at home. It’s no wonder that nearly half of caregivers report emotional stress, and use prescription medications for anxiety and depression two to three times more than the general population.

Making It All Work if You're a Working Caregiver

How can caregivers keep all the work, family and caregiving balls in the air? No one strategy works for everyone and some strategies won’t work for you. But you might want to try some of the three ideas below that other working family caregivers have found useful.

1. Talk with your supervisor and co-workers. Colleagues can’t support you if they know nothing about your situation. You may be reluctant to open up, for fear of their response.

Remember, everyone has a family. Many of your co-workers may have had caregiving experiences of their own. If you begin to discuss caregiving, you may be surprised by others’ understanding and willingness to lend a hand.

Many factors will affect what and when you share:

  • Caring for someone with a chronic condition or long-term disability is different than responding to an emergency or the sudden onset of an acute, but short-term, illness.
  • Shift or physical work that requires bodily presence is unlike computer work that can be done virtually.
  • A boss who is flexible and empathetic may respond differently than one who goes “by-the-book.”

Use your best judgment to decide what is appropriate and most important to share. Your goal is to help others recognize your situation and be willing to help.

Talk with your supervisor sooner, rather than later. Supervisors prefer being forewarned to being blindsided by a crisis for which they might have prepared.

Don’t start by asking for help. Instead, begin by simply describing your current circumstances. Emphasize your commitment to being a productive and effective team member. Reassure your supervisor that you are handling things and will keep him or her informed if your caregiving situation changes. Prepare for the future by suggesting that you may need flexibility and support. Thank your supervisor for understanding.


If you do need help, ask with a straightforward statement and avoid being overly emotional. Using a matter-of-fact tone, say something like, “I’m having difficulty balancing work and caregiving and need your help. I’m committed to doing a good job, but need to make some adjustments.”

Discuss ideas on how to meet work responsibilities during this time of caregiving. Develop and document a mutually agreeable plan.

Ask your supervisor and someone from human resources about caregiver support that might be available. Supportive policies may include: flex-time, compressed work schedules, telecommuting, paid or unpaid leave, job-sharing, temporary reduction of hours,and stress management programs or counseling. Take advantage of those that will help you with work/life balance.

2. Bring the best of yourself to work. Showing up can be hard when you are weighed down by caregiving demands. Ask your boss for feedback on your performance and on what you need to do to be a valuable contributor. Your performance may be better than you think.

While at work, focus on your job. Use your commute time to transition between work and personal responsibilities. Strive to leave personal issues at home and work issues at work. Pick-up each set of concerns when you return to that setting.

Prioritize what’s most and least important at work, too. Don’t strive for perfection. Shoot for “respectable, acceptable to my boss, or very good under the circumstances.” Delegate or postpone less significant responsibilities.

Also, get organized at home and at work. A well-ordered environment creates calm and decreases stress. Organization helps you accomplish more and worry less about dropping the ball.

3. Regularly practice healthy self-care. Self-care is the kind of activity that yields big positive benefits from the accumulation of many small, simple acts. It’s like dental care — a few minutes of daily brushing with a good toothpaste yields dental health. Similarly, a bit of self-care each day boosts your physical and mental health, and your work performance, as well.

Self-care strategies are familiar and pretty simple. Sleep for at least seven hours at night. Take a nap. Eat healthy food. Avoid junk food and excessive eating or drinking. Exercise. Breathe deeply for at least three minutes each day. Meditate. Pray. Keep a journal. Talk with friends and family; clergy or counselor. Avoid toxic people; seek out those who empower and build your confidence. Celebrate important moments. Do something that is fun. Watch a show that makes you laugh. Give thanks for your blessings.

Although self-care isn’t complex, it can be difficult to practice. It’s often dropped when work and caregiving demand attention. Self-care is a choice that can feel selfish when others’ needs are so significant.

But self-care is a necessity, not a guilty pleasure. It is a powerful health promotion tool. Whatever you do to care for yourself will maintain your positive energy and capacity to juggle work and family caregiving.

Jane Meier Hamilton A nurse for 40 years and family caregiver for 20, Jane Hamilton has published The Caregiver’s Guide to Self-Care, and has provided organization-based caregiver support programs since 1981. Just launched, in partnership with Caregiver Action Network, is the innovative Assisting Caregiving Employees (ACE) Program for working family caregivers. Read More
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