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What inadequate support for caretakers is costing companies

4 min read

Leadership convened its inaugural Care Summit this past Thursday in Washington, D.C., bringing together thinkers and leaders in the areas of  child care and elder care for the first time. The day’s speakers addressed caregiving issues, innovative employer programs and helpful technology.  But the overarching message of the day was that millions of Americans are caregivers, and it’s taking a toll on them and their employers.

Consider these statistics from the National Alliance for Caregiving‘s 2009 Caregiving in the U.S. study:

  • There are 65.7 million caregivers in the U.S. — that’s 29% of the nation’s adult population and includes 31% of households.
  • About 70% of caregivers are employed.

That is a lot of people, most of whom are working and have to balance their caretaking responsibilities with their duty to their employer, often by coming in late, leaving early or taking time off, said NAC President and CEO Gail Hunt, the summit’s keynote speaker. Her point was later illustrated by the stories told by panelists and everyday people who work and are caregivers — each of whom gave a different view on the chaos that comes from having to juggle these responsibilities.

It’s not just chaos, though. The juggling causes stress and delivers a hit to caregivers’ health:

  • 17% of caregivers say that their health is “fair” or “poor,” compared with 13% of the general population.
  • 31% of caregivers consider their caregiving situation to be stressful — women are more likely than men to report experiencing high stress.

That’s a real problem for businesses of all sizes. Not only are caregivers having to take time off of work, but they are also worrying about the people they care for and the challenges involved with that care when they are on the job. Moreover, their health is suffering, which may keep them away from work more often and certainly sends up the cost of health care.

For those who may be grumbling at this point, saying people choose to have children and should be prepared to handle the challenges that come with them, consider this:

  • 3.9 million caregivers only care for children.
  • 48.9 million caregivers only care for adults.
  • 12.9 million caregivers care for both children and adults.

That’s more than 93% caring for adults — probably not what you expected. It took me by surprise, too, but I wasn’t shocked to learn that workplace support for adult caregiving lags far behind that for children. Panelists revealed that this deficit goes as far as to include informal means of support.

It seems co-workers often ask how children are doing, but they rarely inquire about parents or other elderly relatives. People just aren’t comfortable talking about issues surrounding aging, which makes things harder for caregivers because they feel isolated.

At lunch, I was seated next to one of the caregivers, who had been invited to the summit to share her story of caring for two young children and her mother who had suffered a stroke. I listened as she pleadingly asked the table — not once, but twice — why managers didn’t occasionally take the time to acknowledge caregivers situations. She didn’t want anything formal, just a simple, “How is your mother doing?” followed by a sincere interest in hearing the answer. To her, it seemed, this small gesture would make a big difference.

Some businesses have realized what you may be starting to understand from these statistics — that this is an important workplace issue that requires action.

While caretaking has traditionally been seen as a work-life balance issue, companies are looking at the information and starting to view it as a wellness issue, said NAC’s Hunt. They are looking toward new programs to address the issue and also looking at how existing programs, such as flex time, can be reworked and rebranded to assist employees who are caretakers.

The summit addressed some of the steps employers are taking in more depth, which I will cover in another post. For now, though, think about these questions:

  • Are you aware of the caretakers at your company?
  • Is your company doing anything to help them?

Image credit, Maica via iStock