By Laura Steele
Elder care is a modern fact of life. Just as women are reaching leadership roles in their careers, and developing a keen sense of their own worth and power in the workplace, many find themselves unexpectedly thrust back into the role of caregiver. A professional career woman, accustomed to a certain level of order in her life, is often unprepared for the significant demands that caregiving for a parent or elderly relative requires.
Gail Sheehy, author of Passages, wrote about “The Caregiving Boomerang” and struck a resounding chord with thousands of women caregivers. She wrote:
“With parents living routinely into their 90s, a second round of caregiving has become a predictable crisis for women in midlife. Nearly 50 million Americans are taking care of an adult who used to be independent. Yes, men represent about one third of family caregivers, but their participation is often at a distance and administrative. Women do most of the hands-on care. The average family caregiver today is a 48-year-old woman who still has at least one child at home and holds down a paying job.”
Caregiving often leads to significant disruptions in a woman’s work/life balance. Caregivers experience higher levels of stress, have more health issues themselves, and report more conflicts with other family members or colleagues. Typically, this added burden leads to absenteeism at work, or an inability to fully focus on the job. According to the MetLife Caregiving Cost Study, US companies lose up to $33 billion each year, as caregivers attempt to balance their careers and the needs of their family members. The high costs of absenteeism and lost productivity impact the bottom line, and many companies are starting to pay closer attention to recent trends in senior care that may assist their employees.
Employees, on the other hand, need to be upfront about issues that are affecting their productivity and ask for assistance before their job performance suffers. The benefits described below can help a caregiver balance the many different responsibilities she has.
Though the percentage of companies that offer flextime has declined since the recession, the benefit is still being implemented by nearly half of companies with more than 100 employees. Statistics (and common sense) show that it is far more expensive to replace an employee, rather than give them some flexibility. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act employees can take up to 12 weeks annually of unpaid leave to care to take care of a child or elderly parent, but many employees are reluctant to ask for an extended amount of time off. They would prefer the flexibility to work fewer hours, or a compressed workweek schedule. In a recent study by Bain & Co., 94% of women surveyed indicated that they’d be very interested in using flextime benefits at some point in their careers. Flextime options can also include telecommuting, which is currently being used by over 17 million American employees. Though flextime is not a perfect solution for women on a tight budget, short-term flexible schedules can help a caregiver work through a crisis.
Employee Assistance Programs
Many Fortune 500 companies, including Deloitte, Boeing, and IBM, offer in-house elder care management services, that can help an employee make better decisions about their family member’s care, or even provide back-up in-home care. The array of services offered for elders is dizzying, and Medicaid and Social Security forms can be confusing. Several hours spent with an expert in elder care management can save weeks of time. IBM has a free in-house referral program called Lifeworks that offers elder care services, as well as time management and stress-relief classes. Ernst & Young offers it’s own program, EY/Assist, which provides around-the-clock referrals and consultations for elder care, mental health services and financial guidance.
Intel has partnered with Legacy Caregiver services to deliver its seminar “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” free-of-charge to its employees. This seminar helps caregivers develop the skills and confidence required to manage their stress while improving their ability to care for others.
Smaller companies can contract with an education and consulting group to provide seminars tailored specifically for their employees. Bringing Elder Care Home, LLC offers two courses: one for employees on “Elder Care and Work: Finding the Balance”; and another for managers, “Elder Care and Employee Productivity: Win-Win-Win Solutions.” The goal of educational programs is to help employers keep a dialogue open with their caregiving employees, while giving them strategies and resources to successfully cope with their job and their home life.
As the first baby boomers turn 65, it is important to realize that nearly every female employee will be faced with an elder care crisis sometime during her career. To be prepared for this likely event, women need to understand their company’s elder care benefits, assess their options for flexible schedules, and educate themselves about the resources available in their community and through their employer.