On Caregiving and Work-Life Balance
Employees who are caregivers and are vocal about work-life balance can see positive effects on their well-being
As a caregiver, several questions cross my mind; many times, they happen all at once, and other times, they come up at different intervals. Among them:
- How can I ensure my mom is okay and has access to the medication she needs?
- How can I navigate the job market during significant competition and a potential recession?
- How can I be competitive in journalism when the landscape changes and layoffs are rampant?
- What will I do if, heaven forbid, we end up homeless?
As caregivers become younger and younger, the stress of an uncertain economy is paramount as caregivers like me try to assess what the future looks like. The prospect of a recession remains frightening, and there are some industries, including journalism, which have faced the brunt of layoffs time and time again.
It is trying to balance the stress and worry in your working life and caregiving life so that you can bring your best self to the tasks of the day.
Full-time opportunities remain few and far between, and the competition is exponential. Yet, it is more than just the picture of the economy or the industry in which one desires to work. It is trying to balance the stress and worry in your working life and caregiving life so that you can bring your best self to the tasks of the day.
As part of the solution, you long for the employer who mentions work-life balance and puts their money where their mouth is instead of creating false hope. However, employees, whether caregivers or not, are becoming more vocal about having that balance in order to be their best selves, personally and professionally.
A New Relationship With Work
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, personal and professional lives have become blurred, opening up the need to talk about navigating the days of significant stress and anxiety. Conversations about working remotely and flexible schedules have become the norm when navigating the market and negotiating a job offer. While no two solutions are alike, the questions are straightforward, but it is a conversation that is not easy to have.
"I thought there has to be a better way to support those who are working in crises and to improve the way we work."
For Leah Phifer, a former federal government employee in Minneapolis who worked in national security and, most recently, human resources for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was in 2021, after a return from an assignment in Texas and the passing of her father, that she began to wonder what her priorities were amid burnout.
"I was working in a crisis scenario," Phifer said in a telephone interview. "When I got home, I thought there has to be a better way to support those who are working in crises and to improve the way we work."
The research began with forming a nonprofit, now known as WhyWork. It gave Phifer, herself a part-time caregiver, an opportunity to consider the questions she and others were contemplating about their relationships with work. "I finally saw other people grappling with the questions I was considering," Phifer said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, personal and professional lives have become blurred, opening up the need to talk about the days of significant stress and anxiety.
"I cracked the code after two bouts of burnout and wanted to share some of those resources with others," Phifer says. She recognized that the conversation about work environments and work-life balance was on the horizon. However, her prediction saw it coming later than planned – the pandemic changed the timeline.
"I saw it coming, but it came a lot faster than I thought," Phifer said."I thought it would take 10 years, but it took 3. [The conversation on] work-life balance accelerated in 3 years."
When Whitney Donielson, a higher education professional in Oregon, had to take time off to help care for her dad, who suffered a stroke in May 2022 and later transitioned into assisted living, she prepared to take on a new role in a new department. The department was more supportive and caring towards her than her last one had been.
"My current direct supervisor very matter-of-factly told me that 'family comes first,' and I could tell she really meant it," Donielson wrote in an email interview. "She's a parent, one of [her children] has special needs. I felt so grateful that she was creating this culture in our office of it being an okay thing to take time off work to be a caregiver. It felt like a huge relief, and I felt like I could breathe."
Donielson is part of an informal support group run by her university's HR department for employees who are caregivers. She says it's been beneficial to talk, commiserate and get advice from colleagues and believes more workplaces need to be receptive to the need for caregivers.
"It makes me angry how rare supportive work environments are for caregivers," Donielson said. "I think we, as a society, are going to have to get more supportive of parents and caregivers and guardians, or we're going to lose even more of our workforce and our student population than we already have."
However, it's more than just work environments, according to Phifer, that impact workers' ability to be productive. The focus has been on the environment because of the pandemic, and despite getting the right environment, Phifer had clients who had burnout.
"We've had an intense focus on the work environment for the last 2 years," Phifer said. "The environment is not what gives us energy; it's the connection to the work we do, it's the connection to the people we work with and activities. Getting the environment right will not completely fix the relationship with work."
Communication Is Key
Communication is part of the solution. While the answer to finding the right work-life balance for the caregiver is multifaceted and will only be solved after a period of time, Donielson and Phifer agree that communication is essential. Donielson said it is vital that employers are upfront with policies to support employees who are caregivers.
"They need to provide true support and flexibility and understanding for their employee caregivers in whatever ways they can, whether it's a flexible work schedule, allowing hybrid or remote work, or being understanding when an employee has to miss work for caregiving duties," Donielson said, adding that flexible leave policies would be beneficial for employees who are caregivers.
"It makes me angry how rare supportive work environments are for caregivers."
"Making these policies clear from the start and creating that culture in the workplace is huge, too. Creating work cultures that allow you to bring your whole self to work and where employees feel supported and seen in many ways would be a good step for many workplaces," she added.
Phifer says employees also have a role in ensuring their work-life balance is right for them.
"Communication is key – you need to fight for it," Phifer said, adding that employees need to have a conversation with employers, spouses and family to achieve the right work-life balance to meet their specific needs.
"Employers say [they have work-life balance] but don't know what it means to every applicant. You need to advocate for it," she noted. So before achieving it, employees and potential employees must be clear about what work-life balance means for them.
According to Phifer, "There are things that we may struggle to control. We don't know what the economy will look like in 6 months, nor the prospects within the industry we want to work in. We don't know if it will rain next week or if it will be a sunny, mild day. We aren't issued crystal balls that can forecast the future."
Nevertheless, we can aspire to make things better for our futures and hope to find the right work-life balance, so we can bring our best selves to work, like Donielson does, even as the lines of our personal and professional lives will be forever blurred.
"I was so grateful knowing that I would be able to balance it all a little more easily – the stress of all of it was still there, but I felt like I didn't have the added stress of also worrying about having to miss work, sometimes abruptly," Donielson said. "I felt so seen and cared for as an employee and as a person. It's hard to balance it all, but I also know that I can, and feeling like I have the space and support to do it is so incredible."