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Improving the Lives of Employee Caregivers Makes Business Sense

Just providing benefit programs may not be enough

A woman in a wheelchair is hugging another woman.

Employers may have an unrecognized drain on productivity when employees struggle to balance their work lives with the responsibilities of caring for children and aging or disabled family members. Moreover, employers often do not recognize how prevalent caregiving responsibilities are among their employees.

While employers estimate that employee caregivers make up about 29 percent of the workforce, the actual percentage is 45 percent, according to Bank of America's 2019 Workplace Benefits Report, which is based on survey responses from 804 U.S. employers and 996 employees.

Medical advances and increasing life spans mean that, in addition to the child care responsibilities employees juggle, aging parents or infirm spouses may require years of assistance—and finding ways to support employee caregivers will become more important to the organization's bottom line.

Support Is Crucial to Caregiver Well-Being

Just providing benefit programs that can help employees better manage their caregiving responsibilities may not be enough. The Bank of America survey found that while 88 percent of the surveyed employers offer some type of caregiving resources, 71 percent of workers are unaware of these offerings, and just 34 percent have taken advantage of them.

Addressing this gap is essential for caregiving benefits to make a significant impact on employees' productivity, as well as their physical, emotional and financial well-being.

The Bank of America survey also found that employee caregivers:

  • Spend an average of $6,500 annually caring for children and about $3,200 caring for other family members.
  • Miss about 12 hours of work per month because of caregiving responsibilities, including providing transportation to medical appointments, grocery shopping, managing finances and paying bills.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Work/Life Fit: Dependent Care and Elder Care]

A Range of Benefits

"Training managers to understand caregiving and its responsibilities is an important part" of providing caregiving benefits, said Rani Snyder, program vice president at The John A. Hartford Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that supports improving the care of older adults.

Managers should know where employees can access the caregiving resources the employer provides, Snyder advised. These resources can cover a range of needs and do not have to be expensive. For example, an employer could provide the means to establish caregiver support groups, including meeting space and ways for group members to communicate and coordinate scheduling.

Employers may already have benefit programs in place that can help employees manage caregiving responsibilities. For instance, the legal assistance available through a voluntary benefits program may be useful to an employee caring for older relatives or to someone who is disabled who needs help with estate planning, guardianship, living wills, medical directives, and obtaining power of attorney for legal issues and health care decision-making.

Similarly, employee assistance programs may offer referral services to child care and elder care services.

Many employees leave the workforce temporarily or consider early retirement because of caregiving responsibilities; benefit programs such as flexible work schedules can help these employees stay in their jobs. Even if they do leave, employers can help them come back.

"Returnships" have grown in popularity as a way to integrate new parents or other employee caregivers back into their day-to-day work life after spending a significant amount of time away. These programs last a few weeks to a few months and provide extra mentorship to help these employees reacquaint themselves with their work environments," said Dania Shaheen, vice president of strategy and people operations at Kazoo, an Austin, Texas-based HR technology firm.

A Falloff in Dependent Care FSAs

According to the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) 2019 Employee Benefits survey of 2,763 HR specialists, dependent care flexible spending accounts (DCFSAs) were offered by 59 percent of surveyed employers in 2019, down from 67 percent reported in the previous two annual SHRM surveys.

A DCFSA is a pretax benefit account used to pay for dependent care services, with an annual pretax contribution limit of $5,000 for individuals or married couples filing jointly, or $2,500 for a married person filing separately, although these amounts are subject to earned income limits. While the benefit is most often used to pay for child day care, elder care also is eligible for reimbursement with a DCFSA if the adult lives with the account holder at least eight hours of the day and is claimed as a dependent on the account holder's federal tax return.

"Caregivers' largest expense is day care, not just for children, but also for elderly and disabled family members," said Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus, a cloud-based benefits management platform firm. Given the central role DCFSAs can play in helping to manage day care expenses, this decline in availability can have a significant impact on caregivers' financial well-being.

Targeted Messages

"Employers need to determine which population of employees they are trying to help," said Tami Simon, global corporate consulting business leader at HR consultancy Segal in Washington, D.C. From there, employers can ask employees about their caregiving responsibilities and what resources they need to better manage this part of their lives.

Employers must also consider the roles employees may have in nontraditional family arrangements. While some employees may have small children, and others might be caring for elderly parents or a disabled spouse, some are raising their grandchildren, or younger employees may be caring for a disabled sibling.

Further, employers should reassure employees that their careers won't be derailed if they take advantage of caregiving resources and that they can discuss how to manage caregiving responsibilities with their employers. A 2017 survey of more than 3,000 caregivers, conducted by Transamerica Institute, found that 40 percent feel that caregiving has strained their relationships with their employers, and 28 percent have had their employer take an adverse action against them, including giving them less-attractive assignments, writing them up or admonishing them, and passing them over for a promotion.

Get Help

The good news is that there is help available for employers that want to improve the support they provide. A report from Harvard Business School provides insight into the best ways to support caregivers.

The Northeast Business Group on Health has developed two helpful resource guides for employers: Supporting Caregivers in the Workplace: A Practical Guide for Employers, produced in collaboration with AARP, and Digital Tools and Solutions for Caregivers: An Employer's Guide.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

Related SHRM Article:

More Workers Than You Realize Are Caregivers, SHRM Online, January 2019


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