How to handle employees who are caregivers to their families Featured

9:01pm EDT April 30, 2011
How to handle employees who are caregivers to their families

The aging of the baby boomer generation and the number of family caregivers is growing rapidly, which has a financial impact on businesses.

If you want to know whether or not this impact is currently being felt at your business, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your employees who are caregivers making telephone calls about their care-giving responsibilities from work?
  • Are they arriving late or leaving early?
  • Are they taking additional time off?
  • Are they reducing their hours?
  • Are they developing health or stress issues that are affecting their productivity?
  • Are they becoming depressed and spending more and more time discussing their care-giving issues with colleagues?
  • Are they retiring early or simply quitting their jobs?

“There are more than 20 million family caregivers now juggling work and elder care responsibilities in the United States, and three-quarters of the caregivers are women,” says M.J. Helms, director of operations for The Ashton Group. “Employees who provide personal care to a family member tend to have much higher levels of physical and emotional stress. The cost to businesses in lost productivity related to elder care is conservatively estimated in the billions per year.”

Smart Business spoke with Helms about employees who are caregivers, and what companies can do to assist with their care-giving responsibilities.

What are employees who are caregivers really looking for?

Some employers have found that by taking a comprehensive approach to work-life balance issues, they can help minimize turnover and productivity losses related to elder care, which will deliver a return of several times their investment in this area.

To do this, employers need to start with an understanding of employed caregivers’ top four needs: time, timely information, financial advice and emotional support.

  • Time needs include both scheduling flexibility and personal time (time away from work and care giving in order to replenish energy).
  • Timely information should be provided through consultation and referral services and by increasing both your in-house intranet or outside Web-based services, all of which help employees meet the challenge of quickly finding the right help at the right time.
  • Financial advice often involves helping the employee creatively combine publicly funded services with the resources of the elder and the caregiver.
  • Emotional support includes a caring attitude on the part of family members, supervisors and coworkers — and sometimes the assistance of a professional counselor — which will help the caregiver through stressful choices and tradeoffs.

How else can employers help with the work-life balance?

Regardless of company size or type, employers can reap the benefits of encouraging work-life balance among employees. One company is doing just that on their production line, where worker teams can ‘flex’ the start and end times of their team members’ shifts to accommodate the demands of childcare and elder care. Other smaller employers located near to one another have pooled their resources to create an association that arranges backup in-home care. Every employer faces a unique combination of factors regarding this issue with their employees.

Where should employers start?

Creating a family-friendly work environment requires a real commitment from the top. It’s the company’s culture, the unspoken rules, that really make the difference. If a company offers flextime but an employee’s supervisor won’t let them use it, it doesn’t do the employee — or the company — any good. If middle managers don’t see company executives ‘walk the talk’ of work-life balance, good programs may be ineffective. Provide training for your managers. Improve managers’ awareness of the issues surrounding aging and care giving, and help them examine their views on accommodating employees’ efforts to balance personal and family obligations with job responsibilities. Train managers to identify stress related to elder care giving. Let your employees know care giving is an important issue by highlighting information on available resources in employee newsletters and other communications.

Know your employees’ needs. How many employees actively care for aging relatives or expect to do so soon? What proportion of employees’ parents live in distant communities?

Also, take a lifecycle approach. Employees in various age groups have different needs regarding work-life balance. Remember to also communicate with employees without any dependent care needs by presenting elder care initiatives as part of your company’s commitment to work-life balance.

How can employers utilize local resources?

Provide information to employees by setting up an on-site family resource center containing newsletters, books, website addresses and videotapes, or maybe arranging services for direct supports (like geriatric care management or emergency backup homecare). Either way, the place to start is the local community. Contact the state unit on aging. The federal Administration on Aging website (www.aoa.gov) provides contacts in all 50 states. Another option is to research a potential consulting firm’s track record specific to elder care. Also, check with the Alliance of Work/Life Professionals at www.awlp.org.

The reality is that the aging of the American population and work force will affect every employer. Just five years ago, the U.S. Department of Labor predicted 151 million jobs in the nation by 2006, but only 141 million workers to fill them. As baby boomers fall ill and the work force is faced with the responsibility of caring for them, employers who invest now in making the workplace elder-care-friendly can avoid the loss of valuable employees with care-giving responsibilities.

M.J. Helms is the director of operations at the Ashton Group. Reach her at (706) 636-3343 or mj@ashtongrp.com.