Company Support for Caregiving Employees Falls Short

Some employers remain unaware of the prevalence of caregivers in their workforces. The biggest challenge caregivers working full-time face—by far—is the emotional stress of trying to balance work with caregiving.

By Karen Kavanaugh December 2, 2021

Over the past 23 months, businesses large and small have been forced to quickly adapt and withstand change. From shifting from a traditional, in-office, 40-hours-a-week model to adopting a more hybrid, remote-focused approach, the uncertainty created by the pandemic has brought employee burnout, rising stress levels and emotional instability to the forefront of the new workplace environment.

It has also made clear that offering cool amenities such as foosball tournaments, happy hours, free snacks or hot lunch buffets may no longer be shiny baubles attracting the best talent. Today, the benefits that matter most are often the ones employees may not notice but care deeply about if offered. Now more than ever, it's important for employees to be "well enough," especially when a growing sector of adults are pulling double duty by caring for a loved one while working full-time.

Throughout the nation, we've heard about "the great resignation." Across industry sectors, business size and occupational categories—from frontline nurses to senior management—many employers are struggling to find employees as they fight to keep the ones they have. To bridge this gap, employers are seeking ways to retain and attract employees by identifying what matters most to them.

The Caregiving Journey

Surprisingly, despite the unprecedented view of family life the pandemic exposed, some employers remain largely unaware of the prevalence of caregivers who are caring for someone who is ill, aging or disabled in their workforces. And they may not fully understand how those experiences present different challenges than those posed by caring for a child.

Caregiving journeys are influenced by an array of variables including recipient condition, prognosis, availability of assistance from others and the affordability of services. They also vary with respect to duration and intensity, adding to their complexity, which is why there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.

In the summer of 2021, as part of our Working While Caring initiative, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers (RCI) conducted two national surveys: one of family caregivers aged 18-70 who were working full-time while providing care on a regular basis for someone who is aging, ill or disabled, and one of registered voters. They both reveal how working full-time while providing care for a loved one has emotional, generational and financial impacts.

What we found through our research was eye-opening. Key findings include roughly two in ten (19 percent) family caregivers who are working full-time said that at some point during their caregiving journey, they had to quit a job to care for their loved one. Forty-four percent of those working while caring said they had to go to part-time work or reduce their hours.

The biggest challenge family caregivers working full-time face—by far—is the emotional stress of trying to balance work with caregiving responsibilities. These caregivers also report that the lack of time for their own care is a substantial challenge.

The surveys also found differences in the experience of working while caring by age, race, education, income and employer size. Younger adults, people of color and paid hourly workers reported more frequently that at some point while caring for their loved one they had to quit, reduce their hours or stay in their job longer than they wanted to. Additionally, more than half of the employees who reported working in smaller businesses had to reduce their hours or go part-time.

A majority of younger adults said they lost income due to missing work and nearly half said they passed up opportunities for promotions. Employed family caregivers who are the primary caregiver more frequently reported experiencing these situations than their counterparts who are not the primary caregiver.

What Companies Can Do

Here are some additional findings that should guide executives' decisions on employee compensation. Our surveys showed the five benefits employed family caregivers say they would use if made available to them are also those that they report are less likely to be offered by their employers:

  • Flexible scheduling
  • Remote work or telework
  • Reducing hours from full-time to part-time
  • Job sharing/reduced workload
  • Specialized caregiver services

In fact, of the 10 employer benefits we asked about (from unpaid leave to specialized caregiver services), 65 percent of employed family caregivers report having access to less than half of these benefits. Family caregivers who used more of their employer provided benefits report lower levels of emotional stress (28 percent) in caring for their loved one than those who did not use or were not offered benefits (41 percent).

There is another critical piece of this puzzle: America's long-term care system is broken. While the private sector can do more to recognize and support their employee caregivers, they cannot solve all the challenges stemming from the fragmented and expensive long-term care system in the U.S. Therefore, RCI is seeking to partner with employers to not only better understand the challenges within their own workforce so that we can help tailor innovative solutions designed for their specific workforce but also help them to understand how our current healthcare system affects their workforce and bottom line.

Through programs and follow-on evaluations, we'll be able to discern whether and how these actions help to change employer behavior and enable them to engage as more visible partners in broader policy reforms. In the short-term, however, there are a few things executives can consider incorporating into their workplace:

  • Add a caregiving module to ongoing employee surveys.
  • Include questions about caregiving as part of the open enrollment process.
  • Ask employee caregivers about their preferences, pain points and then tailor supports accordingly.
  • Think about whether and how organizational culture supports employee caregivers.
  • Ask employee caregivers if they have access to quality and affordable home- and community-based services.
  • Test and evaluate different interventions and share findings.

As we engage in our Working While Caring initiative, our guiding light is the wisdom shared by RCI's founder and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter: "There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregiver, and those who need them."

Those words capture the reality all of us, even the youngest among us, will face one day if we aren't already doing so. In a recent op-ed, Carter highlighted how family caregivers were invisible until the pandemic, but now they're on the front lines and are still lacking the support they need. RCI believes that if we're successful in raising awareness, and if we are successful in helping employers and policymakers take key steps, we will be successful in strengthening the financial health of businesses and our nation's economy for the benefit of future generations.  

Karen Kavanaugh, MSW, is Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives, for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in Washington, D.C.

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