How to sensitively and legally address employees with caregiving responsibilities

Melissa Hulsey, President and CEO, Ashton

You might notice a member of your staff who looks frazzled, or who frequently uses vacation days but never goes on an actual vacation. Maybe he or she has turned down a promotion or a new project. There’s a good chance this person is dealing with something at home, and employers need to pay attention, because it’s a growing issue in today’s workplace.

“When a working man or woman is faced with the additional job of caring for a loved one, their life is changed and so are their priorities,” says Melissa Hulsey, president and CEO of Ashton. “Employers need to be aware of these changes and have plans in place to address them.”

Smart Business spoke to Hulsey about how employers can — and should — approach the often difficult topic of employees with caregiving responsibilities.

Why should employers pay attention to this issue?

It is a fact that Americans are living longer. In 1990, 12.6 percent of the U.S. population was over age 65. This number is expected to increase to 22.6 percent by the year 2040. While those aged 65 to 74 is expected to increase by 17 percent, the population of those over 85 years is expected to double. Improved health care and use of disease prevention techniques contribute to our longer life expectancy.

Many older adults develop a disability that will cause them to need outside help with the activities of daily living. As most older people want to remain in their homes, caregivers must be found to help with simple things like dressing and bathing, or more complex medical requirements. Anyone can be a caregiver; however they are most typically women.

What are some of the challenges these employees are facing, both in and out of the workplace?

When an employee takes on the new role of a caregiver, the first thing they usually give up is personal time and leisure activities to fit everything in. Emotions like sadness, guilt, worry, fatigue and even anger may begin to affect them. Finances may become strained as living arrangements and other caregiving options are being discussed and transitioned. At work employees may become more easily distracted or stressed as this new workload sets in. And this is just the beginning of the process.

How should employers approach this subject?

It is imperative to the company and the employee to communicate openly during this time and have realistic expectations for the work-life balance. The last thing a good employee needs during this difficult time is to worry about their job. Recent studies have shown that adopting flexible workplace policies that help your employees with caregiving responsibilities to have a better work-life balance may decrease complaints of discrimination, but also will benefit the customer base and bottom line.

Employers with work-life balance policies in place reduce absenteeism, increase recruitment and retention and save time and money on training new employees. These programs have allowed some employers to be ‘lean but not mean.’ Offering workplace flexibility programs has given some employers an alternative to work force reductions in a bad economic environment. This allows organizations to rebound quickly as soon as business improves.

Are employers obligated to help or accommodate employees with these responsibilities?

Companies with more than 50 employees are required comply with FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), which allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave while caring for a seriously ill spouse, parent or child, and protects job security. Smaller firms can use FMLA as a guideline to structure their own policy.

Employers must also be careful not to violate any Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines. This would include training managers to be sensitive to the needs of employees in this situation. Include written policies that define the benefits and flexibility in your workplace for caregivers in your handbook. Make sure that all employees are treated equally when this occurs to avoid any complaints.

What is the best way for employers to address this in a way that works for everyone?

The best way to address the rising challenge of elder care in the workplace is to have a good written plan in place. Some parts of this plan may include:

  • Human resources or employee assistance can offer a list of resources such as Internet sites, local agencies for the elderly, elderly day care or meal services in the area.
  • Larger organizations could have a caregiver support group.
  • Host a company ‘caregiver fair’ or invite industry professionals to lunch-and-learn seminars.
  • Offer resources for legal and financial advice.
  • Offer long-term care policies as a benefit option.
  • Have counseling options available through insurance coverage or referrals.
  • Consider different ways to give the employee more of their most valuable resource — time. This could be through flex time, borrowing or buying leave, part-time opportunities, compassionate leave policies or career breaks.
  • Most importantly, be considerate and sensitive to what the employee is going through. Others will see that concern and be more likely to ‘pitch in for the team.’

We all have parents and, one day, may face this challenge ourselves. Remember the golden rule: ‘treat others as you wish to be treated.’ That may be the best way to consider what policies employers should have for elder care.

Melissa Hulsey is the president and CEO of Ashton. Reach her at (770) 419-1776 or [email protected]

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