By Sherri Snelling, Next Avenue Contributor
March 27, 2014
It’s becoming a common theme at the workplace:
- One worker takes the day off to take her 90-year-old dad to his medical appointment
- Another spends his lunch break calling Medicare to discuss a billing discrepancy in his mom’s claim
- And yet another leaves at 5 p.m. sharp for her second full-time job: caring for her aging mother
Caregiving is here to stay. And corporate America is not ready.
Employers face a workforce in its prime caregiving years. Today, seven out of 10 caregivers work full- or part-time and represent more than 15% of the U.S. labor force. Economic hard times have pushed the average retirement age from 57 in the ’90s to 61 and rising, according to a Gallup poll.
And it isn’t just a boomer issue. Pew Research reported 42% of Gen Xers are sandwich generation caregivers — caring for children still at home and aging parents simultaneously. That’s a higher percentage than their boomer counterparts (33%).
We are at the tipping point where employees are more concerned about elder care than child care.
Fears About Saying You’re a Caregiver
A challenge for working caregivers and their employers is that caring for an older parent or ill spouse is not a joyful event. Workers don’t show up with smiles and cute stories as they did when they were raising toddlers or had just become a grandparent.
Another challenge is that many employees, concerned about job security, fear identifying themselves as caregivers. A report by the National Alliance for Caregiving found 50% of working caregivers are reluctant to tell their supervisor about their caregiving responsibilities.
A Caring.com survey found three-fourths of caregivers for those with dementia told their co-workers of their role and responsibilities. That’s more than the number who told extended family, but less than the number who told their boss (66%).
While some caregivers fear stigma, others don’t think of themselves as caregivers, with that role and label. They feel they are just being a “good son or daughter.”
(MORE: What Do We ‘Owe’ Our Parents?)
Not knowing about their workers’ responsibilities creates a dilemma for employers. Some report caregiving resources and services available to employees go underutilized, causing HR departments to feel there is no need to keep them. In reality, there is a growing need. But both parties need to turn up the volume in communicating with each other.
Making Caregiving Visible
One solution is getting employers to see the totality of their employees lives, including their role as caregivers.
When I interviewed Eric Dishman, Intel fellow and general manager of the Intel Health Strategy and Solutions Group, for my new book, he shared this story.
“Years ago, I presented a proposal [at Intel] for new technology products to help caregivers,” Dishman says. “After the presentation, the lead executive told me he didn’t think anyone would really need or buy these types of products.”
Dishman asked the executive to call his wife, and much to his surprise, he did. Dishman then took the phone and spoke with her for several minutes before handing it back to the executive. The wife told her husband this was the first time in his 25 years at Intel that he would actually be developing products that could help her. She was caregiving for her mother-in-law at the time.
“This is an illustrative story to show it’s not malice. It was just that the caregiving his wife was doing was completely invisible to this executive,” says Dishman. “He was at work all day and didn’t see that she was at work all day, too, with a caregiving job.”
Dishman says the executive realized if his wife was going through this, maybe millions of other Americans and some of his employees were, too. (By the way, Dishman got his funding, and Intel continues to be a leader in caregiving technology and supporting its caregiving employee workforce.)
Change Starts at The Top
Typically, when the head of a company or someone in the C-suite has encountered caregiving, a different corporate culture emerges.
Nancy Rubin, head of human resources for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, found herself caring for her aging mother. Stepping into this new role opened Rubin’s eyes to the plight that was befalling other employees.
“I listen to the problems and issues of our employees all day, spending most of my time searching for solutions, and then I come home at night and do it all over again with my mom,” says Rubin.
But, unlike many other working caregivers, Rubin found her company offered a compassionate, supportive environment for caregivers. Once she opened up about her situation to her boss and colleagues, it was like a heavy boulder was lifted off her shoulders.
“Because our CEO helps care for his mother-in-law, he really understands and is empathetic to the challenges caregivers face,” says Rubin. She also found her staff has become invested in her caregiving role after meeting her mother.
“They often ask how she is doing or chat with my mom on the phone when she calls,” adds Rubin. “The culture of care at work really makes me feel that I don’t have to hide anything from my employer and colleagues, which in turn makes me more loyal, dedicated and present in my job.”
Aiming for Compassionate Communication
One organization encouraging an open dialogue in the workplace is the Alzheimer’s Association, through its Alzheimer’s Early Detection Alliance campaign. More than 1,600 companies have signed on to receive information and educational materials for its workforce on the prevalence and impact of Alzheimer’s disease. Companies including GE Healthcare, Genworth and Dow Chemical have provided dementia care education to 4.5 million employees.
“One of the challenges for employers is those companies that do offer some services to support employees coordinate programs through human resource departments where personnel are not trained on aging issues,” says Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving. Her organization published a report on the best practices in workplace elder care.
The key to a brighter future for caregivers and better bottom-line for companies is compassionate communication.
Let the caregiving conversation begin.
5 Things Employees Say They Need
1. An environment where they can talk freely to HR and supervisors about how to balance work and caregiving Suncoast Hospice in Florida sets a good example, encouraging open dialogue about caregiving challenges. And its Pilgrimage Program is a holistic spiritual approach for caregivers to manage stress and depression including aromatherapy, massage and energy work classes.
2. Flex time or telecommuting considerations According to SHRM’s report, 77% of companies offer flex time and 63% offer telecommuting options for working caregivers.
3. Support groups On-site or online options help employees. Kimberly-Clark’s Family Caregiver Network group provides resource information as well as support. Lotsa Helping Hands provides a free, private online community tool to employers so working caregivers can get volunteer help from co-workers, friends and family.
4. Employee wellness programs Caregivers are twice as likely as the general population to develop chronic illness due to stress. The American Psychological Association is working with companies to provide relaxation classes and training for employees. Companies such as Huffington Post offer mediation rooms.
5. Employee assistance and education programs More employers are creating Dependent Care Assistance Plans for employees caring for older parents. The NFL offers its 88 Plan for retired players suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s and ALS. It’s a long-term care benefit to help families emotionally and financially.
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.