The Loop

Holistic Policies for Caregivers

Filed under: Benefits

These days, the caregiver role is ubiquitous. We have single parents, dual-working couples, and even mid-career professionals juggling childcare challenges. And every generation in the workforce, from Gen Z to Boomers, has members caring for elderly parents or grandparents. In fact, Gen Z and Millennial caregivers are increasingly taking on the role of the “sandwich generation” (caregiving for both children and older adults); they also are the most likely to be doing so while working a fulltime job.

All told, approximately 100 million US adults play a caregiving role, either for a child, parent, or other relative. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 1 in 5 adults is a caregiver
  • Nearly a third of them provide care for at least 20 hours a week
  • About 20% report that they themselves are in fair or poor health
  • With 25% noting that the stress of caregiving has worsened their health
  • Within two years, 1 in 6 non-caregivers expects to assume this role for someone in their family

Why is this an issue for employers? Because nearly every worker will at some point be burdened with unpaid caregiver duties, and it can impact their performance at work. They may have to make concessions, such as arrive late for work or exit early, take long lunch breaks to handle personal obligations, or even leave unexpectedly for a family emergency. Moreover, their work throughout the day may be frequently interrupted to respond to caregiving needs.

According to a MetLife Employee Benefit Trends Study, one-third of the US workforce is represented by caregivers. Not surprisingly, they are 50 percent more likely to feel overwhelmed and burned out than non-caregiver workers. According to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, about 25 percent of employed caregivers have had to stop working, while another 40 percent reduced their hours to care for a loved one.

As you would expect, there is a bottom-line number associated with that level of workplace disengagement and attrition: between $228 million and $355 million per year in lost productivity for a median-sized S&P company.

Caregiver Syndrome

While not an official medical diagnosis, caregiver syndrome informally refers to a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Symptoms may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Isolation
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or sadness
  • Loss of interest in previous activities
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Uncharacteristic irritability and/or anger
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, body pain, high blood pressure, diabetes, a compromised immune system, other medical problems)

Holistic health addresses physical, mental, social, and spiritual characteristics. Given the wide spectrum of worker circumstances, taking a holistic approach to wellbeing benefits is bound to positively impact the entire workforce – including caregivers.

Benefits of Leave Policies

A 2021 survey by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers found that the employer benefits that caregivers use most are flexible scheduling, remote work, a reduction to part-time hours, job sharing, and specialized caregiver services. About three-quarters say they would be willing to disclose their caregiver status, if required, to qualify for employer benefits.

Company benefits can improve the caregiver’s plight. In fact, research by MetLife revealed that caregivers who are satisfied with their employer’s paid leave and unpaid benefits (e.g., medical, family, vacation, sick leave) are 73 percent more likely to have positive mental health.

Since many shift or hourly-paid workers do not have much flexibility in terms of a remote work opportunities, generous leave policies can help offset this limitation.

Paid leave, particularly more paid time off (e.g., vacation, sick leave, floating holidays), is a key  caregiver benefit that is valued among all workers, young and old. When combined with the option to buy back PTO hours, flexible time off appeals to workers who need more income, to those who like to travel, and certainly for caregivers who need more time for personal obligations as well as vacation time for themselves.

Vet/Subsidize Resources

Often enough, the bigger problem for caregivers isn’t paying for supplementary help, it’s finding people you can trust, who are reliable and patiently meet the needs and expectations of the dependent person. In other words, it’s hard for a daughter to find someone just like her to attend to her elderly mom.

There are resources available, both public and private, but workers need help finding and vetting them. Employers have the opportunity to offer an immensely valuable benefit by taking on this burden. Scour your current benefits, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), health or Medicare insurance. For example, you may already offer coverage that allows for  periodic visits from a home health nurse – which would save a worker from having to schedule doctor’s appointments for minor ailments.

Human resource staff would do well to contact and develop relationships with local agencies, community resources like child/adult daycare programs, and support groups for caregiver friendship and commiseration. Consider sponsoring a company-wide caregiver support group to give workers the opportunity to help each other.  

Other employer-provided resources may include meal delivery, transportation, cleaning, laundry, yard work, and similar services that help take some responsibility off the caregiver’s plate. This would enable better work-life balance and relieve stress. By offering a wide variety of menu-style voluntary benefits with a stipend, each worker can choose how to subsidize services that best meet their personal needs.

Job Redesign

For some caregivers, having to quit work is the last option – not just for the lack of income – but because they will then devote the majority of their time to caregiving, with one less outlet for social and intellectual stimulation. If possible, allow caregiver workers to redesign or fine-tune their role to help them stay on the job and be more focused while at work. For example, let them choose the days and times that work best for them, then decide if the change warrants another parttime worker, job sharing among two caregiver workers, or reassignment to  projects conducive to the preferred schedule.

Employers can help set parameters for a job redesign such as:

  • Minimum/maximum work hours (per day, per week)
  • Compressed workweeks (e.g., four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days)
  • Limit work communications/meetings to certain hours of the day
  • Stagger start times or self-scheduling options for shift workers

Government Mandates/Support

The pandemic exposed the challenges of not having back-up caregiver resources, particularly for people relying on senior parents for childcare, or community resources for elderly parents. And while paid leave is not mandatory in the United States, the trend is gradually increasing at the state level.

Currently, a dozen states have passed their own Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML)  programs (CA, CO, CT, DE, MA, MD, NH, NJ, NY, OR, RI, WA, and DC). Virginia employers may offer Paid Family Leave insurance as a voluntary benefit. Also, several states have implemented caregiver tax credits or other reimbursement programs. For example, Maine and North Dakota offer eligible family caregivers up to a $2,000 grant to access respite care and other supportive services.

Note that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) features a Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC). This resource offers eligible family caregivers of veterans a financial stipend, training, access to health insurance, counseling, respite care, and legal and financial planning services.

Adopt a Caregiving Culture

Perhaps the most significant way employers can help their caregiving workforce is to foster a supportive environment. This should start at the top, where plenty of C-suite executives and middle managers can relate to and share their own caregiving burdens. This lets workers know that they understand the responsibility and encourage others to speak freely. Because caregiving is burdened by the stigma of being unreliable and pre-occupied by personal matters, the one thing workers should feel is that it’s okay to share the challenges they face and seek help for solutions without fear of reprisal.

After all, caregiving is a universal predicament – shared among workers of all ages. It’s important to let your workforce know that you are all in it together, and willing to help each other find solutions.

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