Caring for Your Company’s Caregivers

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This article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Read the original there. 

A few years ago, Joy Johnston flew across the country to help care for her father, who had Alzheimer’s. After she quickly used up the significant amount of paid time off she had accrued at her job, she applied for federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits, but this proved difficult — her father regularly moved facilities, and the FMLA approval process requires a complicated array of hospital verification documents.

After her father died, Joy switched jobs. Six months later, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Joy had accrued no paid time off and was not yet eligible to apply for FMLA benefits, and her employer refused to let her work remotely when her mother had surgery. Put in this difficult situation, Joy quit. She was able to scrape together a handful of remote jobs, but only earned a quarter of what she had been making before. She also lacked employer-sponsored health insurance and couldn’t afford to contribute to a retirement account.

Messy and difficult sagas like Joy’s will only become more common, as 10,000 U.S. Baby Boomers turn 65 each day. By 2050, the U.S. population of older adults will have nearly doubled, to 83.7 million people. Pew estimates that nearly 40% of adults in the United States are unpaid caregivers, and the AARP notes that six in 10 family caregivers are also in the labor force.

Thriving into our eighties, nineties, and even hundreds will be impossible without help — especially as 90% of people 65 and older plan to continue to live in their own homes. Cuts in funding for social welfare programs, the soaring costs of health care, and our dwindling retirement savings make paying for home care untenable for anyone except the extremely wealthy.

As a result, caregiving usually falls on family members, many of whom are faced with having to give up careers and income to help an ailing parent. This problem disproportionately affects women, who overwhelmingly outnumber men in caregiving roles, according to MetLife. They also tend to take on more difficult care tasks than men, such as bathing, toileting, and dressing, while men are more likely to assist with less burdensome tasks, such as finances and arrangement of care.

Almost all of this work is unpaid — and the financial penalties associated with it are striking. A female family caregiver who leaves the workforce to care for a parent loses an average of $324,044 in wages, Social Security, and private pensions over her lifetime. (This is, of course, on top of the lost income that already results from the gender wage gap.) What’s more, caregiving also interrupts careers: in a study of prime-age workers not in the workforce, 36% of unemployed women had left work as a result of caregiving, compared to only 3% of men.

This situation will surely continue; along with parenting, balancing work and caring for older family members will become a central struggle for Americans over the next several decades. Many of these people are your employees, or will be. Along with home care workers, they’re part of an invisible and struggling economy. In order to truly address the needs of an older America, we need to change the way we approach caregiving itself — and businesses have a crucial role to play.

What Companies Are — And Aren’t — Doing

Until now, the burdens of this new world have fallen on workers, not their employers. Fully 68% of working family caregivers report making adjustments at work such as arriving late or leaving early, taking time off, changing jobs, turning down a promotion, or cutting back on hours. Workers in the “sandwich generation” — so called because they have to care for both children and parents — are likely to be hit the hardest; according to Gallup workforce data reported in Fast Company, about one-third of American managers are part of Generation X. A full 11% of them care for an elderly or disabled person, while 64% have children living at home. Millennials are now being affected as well, making up about 25% of the nation’s family caregivers; like members of Generation X, many of their parents are aging Baby Boomers. Older workers are affected, too: 19% report retiring early, not because they’re ready to leave the workforce, but because they need to care for a spouse or other family member.

Companies are failing to meet the needs of some of their most experienced and talented workers across the generations. What’s more, they risk losing these workers to companies that are on the cutting edge of responding and adapting to caregiving responsibilities brought on by an aging nation.

One company that is often cited as progressive in this area is L.L. Bean. Headquartered in Freeport, Maine, L.L. Bean’s employees range in age from 16 to 91, with an average age of 49. “Our approach is to be an employer with ‘ageless appeal,’” wrote the firm’s director of human resources, Wendy Estabrook, in a 2015 article in Maine Policy Review. Flexibility in the workplace at L.L. Bean takes many different forms. In addition to its full-time employees, L.L. Bean has employees at three part-time levels (on call, seasonal, and active retiree), and offers the option of working remotely. When it comes to leave, the company augments FMLA with its own leave policy that allows employees to take up to six months in a 12-month period away from work, unpaid, to care for themselves or a loved one. On top of this, the company offers counseling on the myriad issues that arise around care, whether related to locating resources, dealing with financial or legal issues, or coping with grief.

“We have actually found that typically what is good for the 25-year-old is also good for the 55-year-old employee although that may be for different reasons,” Estabrook wrote. In other words, the policies that can help a 45-year-old employee work remotely while caring for her aging mother or allow a 30-year-old dad to take leave to spend time with his new baby will also help a 65-year-old who wants to stay in the workforce. Across the age and work spectrums, flexibility makes a world of difference.

But flexible workplaces don’t just emerge organically; they require years of development and a serious commitment to shifting workplace culture. A culture that benefits both the parents of children and the children of parents has to be supported by top executives in the workplace, and must be incorporated into the hiring process of every employee, notes Drew Holzapfel, a partner at the High Lantern Group consultancy and a member of ReACT, a coalition of companies that advocates for caregivers.

Holzapfel points to Emory University, which has established a culture of care throughout the institution, facilitated through its WorkLife Resource Center. The process began in 2010, when a campus-wide needs assessment found that 15% of the respondents were caring for an older, ill, or disabled family member, and more than half were concerned about balancing the responsibilities of work and care in the next one to three years. The university convened an adult care working group, including human resources professionals, experts on aging, social workers, and elder law attorneys, to address the needs of employees. The group came up with a set of recommendations: expanding the university’s family medical and sick leave policies; developing and promoting an employer-sponsored adult care program; providing on-call emergency backup home care; increasing awareness of available resources; promoting the cultural inclusion of care issues through counseling and workshops; and hiring a dedicated work-life adviser to oversee the program and provide one-on-one coaching and support for employees.

These policies were implemented five years ago. “We have surveyed our workforce twice in recent years and see that flexibility is increasing all across our campus. Over half of our workforce reports working flexibly,” says Audrey Adelson, a consultant at Emory’s WorkLife Resource Center. “The shift to flexible work has not been easy, and is a cultural change that takes time and effort, but it has been worth it.”

Providing a range of care support to your employees may sound expensive, but in the long term, it can improve a company’s bottom line. A joint report by AARP and ReACT found that supportive caregiving policies have a high return on investment. For example, for every dollar invested in flextime, a company can expect to recoup between $1.70 and $4.34. For every dollar invested in telework, the return on investment ranges between $2.46 and $4.45. Generous benefits like these were consistently linked with a 10% lower inclination to change jobs, while family-friendly policies increased worker-reported productivity by up to 2.4%.

Moreover, family-friendly policies also help recruit new talent. In one survey of college students, the availability of flextime, elder care benefits, and paid family leave were shown to influence the job choices of up to 33% of job seekers. Overall, flexible work hours lead to 50% less absenteeism, 30% increased employee retention, and 20% better recruitment. Research also shows that companies with such policies have some of the highest net promoter scores — that is, they are most likely to be recommended by their employees as great places to work.

Larger companies are starting to catch on: Starbucks recently announced that it would offer heavily subsidized backup care to both full-time and part-time employees for 10 days per year. This would allow an employee to take their child or older loved one to a day care or adult day center for $5 a day, or hire an in-home care provider for $1 an hour, with the company picking up the rest of the cost. The benefit is supplemental to the health care coverage the company already provides.

Even Silicon Valley, with its still relatively young workforce, has made early advances in accommodating caregiving needs. Many companies offer generous paid leave for new parents —something the FMLA benefits do not, of course, provide. These examples show that the most pioneering companies are not waiting for new regulations or more support from the government, but are acting on their own. They are taking a broader, much more flexible approach to caregiving that reflects the needs of an aging society.

Steps Your Organization Can Take Now

Adapting your company’s caregiving culture isn’t always easy. But here are two places to start.

First, offer flexible benefits (rather than simply maternity or child care leave). This normalizes taking leave for anyone. Care isn’t just something that young women do for their children; a middle-aged man or an older employee may equally need to take time off. Framing the benefit as care leave and offering it as a paid benefit takes away the stigma for women around both maternity leave and elder care, and reduces the stereotype that women should be primary caregivers. Companies may need to encourage their male employees to take parental leave — research has shown that when a few men take leave, other men follow suit. Humanyze, a people analytics company, actually requires new fathers to take parental leave.

Second, reduce the stigma attached to care needs and responsibilities. We have been culturally conditioned to refrain from talking about care needs or caregiving responsibilities when we are at work, especially with our bosses. Companies can begin to change this in subtle and explicit ways.

One approach is to encourage employees to self-identify as caregivers — particularly those who typically don’t reveal themselves to be in caregiving roles, such as men, young people, and senior managers. This can start during the training process for new employees. Human resources departments can bring in experts to talk about caregiving, encouraging employees to feel more open in sharing their experiences and how caregiving impacts their work. Companies also can offer access to therapy and counseling as part of employees’ health benefits.

Just as corporate gyms, yoga studios, and lactation rooms are becoming part of the design of many corporate campuses, companies should consider designing workspaces using photos, symbols, and artifacts that emphasize our shared caregiving roles and need for care. For example, managers can have photos of older parents, children, or pets on their desk as a way of affirming these roles. Companies could also host days on which employees can bring grandparents, parents, or children to work, or extend invitations to family members for company events.

One of us (Sarita) took a full twelve weeks of parental leave when she had her daughter, Suraiya. She made a point of disconnecting from work as a way of encouraging other new parents to do the same. Given her own caregiving responsibilities, she frequently uses our policies on telework, and she takes paid sick days and leave when Suraiya or her parents have medical needs. She has also been mindful of creating a family-friendly office culture, bringing her daughter to the office and her parents to major events. She has pictures of her family on her desk and acknowledges team members’ pictures when they have them displayed, too.

All of these steps can help normalize and affirm care needs and responsibilities in the workplace. This is unchartered territory for most organizations, however, so these shifts should be approached as a series of experiments or small steps before they are codified as best practices.

Of course, companies can’t solve our caregiving problem entirely. We also need to better support home health workers, who are invaluable when people have long-term conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia. Home care aides tend to be women of color, and, despite being in one of the fastest-growing professions in the U.S., they earn a median annual pay of around $13,000. These workers also face unpredictable hours and schedules, which become burdensome when they have their own children or parents to care for as well. States like Washington and New York are making some headway in making care jobs into better jobs, but there’s much more room for progress.

We also need broader public-sector solutions that acknowledge the evolving state of the caregiving workforce and provide working family caregivers with supports that address their growing and changing needs. That’s why our campaign advocates for Universal Family Care, a policy vision that would create a family care insurance fund that individuals could use to pay for child care, elder care, or paid time off from work to attend to caregiving needs, and that employees could take with them from job to job.

Ultimately, we need to recognize that care work is vital to our society. Businesses can and should play a huge role in making this cultural shift, driven in no small part by company leaders. In valuing your employees’ commitment to the people they love the most, you’re showing that you value them, too.

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