Working and Caregiving: A Challenging Situation

By Rebecca R. Mild Published: July 27, 2004
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How many times have we said to ourselves, "I don't know what I'll do if something happens to mom or dad, grandmother or grandfather. For many Americans, the dreaded time when a beloved family member becomes sick and/or disabled has arrived, presenting families and individuals with all the challenges of caregiving. Caring for an older family member may not sound so difficult but when you consider that 71 percent of all caregivers are employed full-time and more than 40 percent also care for children younger than 18, the additional responsibilities can easily overwhelm a family (statistics from The National Family Caregivers Association, 2000). Studies indicate that caregivers dedicate an average of 18 hours a week to caring for the elderly family member and even more hours if the person has multiple disabilities.

Balancing work demands and family needs can take a toll on the caregiving employee both on the job and at home. Almost all employees providing care reported at least one informal adjustment to their work schedules. They made more phone calls, arrived late/left early, or used time off during the day, making up work in the evenings or on weekends (The Metlife Juggling Act Study, 1999). Employers report more formal disruptions such as an increase in the use of sick days, a decrease in the number of hours spent working, early retirement, changing job status from full-time to part-time, lost job benefits and an increase in use of the Family Medical Leave Act, which secures an employee's job while they use vacation time and unpaid leave to care for a family member. The result of using leave time to give care means employees aren't getting a break, whether it's a vacation or just down time with the family. This situation will make more employees and their family members vulnerable to complications such as family discord, parent-child issues, marital issues, stress-related illness and financial problems. Additionally, many caregivers avoid work-related travel, job transfers, and additional training because of time constraints and the need to be close to family, making them less likely to improve their job status and income.

The prevalence of personal and job-related issues relating to caregivers is on the increase. While in 1990 there were 11 people for every one person needing care, there will only be four people for every person by the year 2050 (Journal of American Medical Association, Dec. 15, 1999, Volume 218, no. 23). Baby Boomers, representing 29.4 percent of the population, are aging so the number of Americans older than age 65 is growing each year, and is expected to reach 62 million by 2025 making understanding, acknowledging and responding to family caregivers in the workplace more important than ever (U.S Census Bureau).

What can be done for employers and employees to minimize the impact of this trend? Employees are providing valuable feedback to their employers about their needs as caregivers.

- 65% of employees surveyed thought easier access to flex time would help.

- 60% agreed that pre-tax spending accounts would ease financial challenges.

- 56% agreed that a 1-800 phone number for advice would be beneficial.

- 52% thought that elder care and workplace seminars would help their situations.

(NAFE, 1999)

Further employee studies indicate employees would use a wide variety of services and information if offered by their employers.

- 96% A policy allowing flexible use of sick leave, vacation leave, and family leave for end-of-life situations

- 89% Referrals for information or advice about counseling or bereavement services

- 84% Educational materials about dealing with end-of-life tasks and decisions.

- 82% Referrals to professionals for information or advice about medical care

- 82% Referrals for legal information and advice

- 82% Confidential, individual sessions about facilitating communications among family members and care providers

(Last Acts (1999). Research findings from studies with companies and caregivers.)

Business has responded to many employee needs through Employee Assistance services, either within their corporation or contracted, which not only include mental health counseling, and legal and financial services, but also provide elder-care referrals for many employees along with information and resources for the caregiver. Also, human resource departments often work in a supportive role to help employees manage their work time and time off so they can be attentive caregivers without fearing losing their job. As the number of caregivers increases, and resources are stretched thin for both employee and employer, more and more creative, supportive approaches will need to be considered and implemented to take care of our impacted work force.

Some newer ideas include on-site elder care services and programs, adult daycare handled much like on-site childcare, greater use of the Internet for information and referrals, and workplace interventions such as case management. Many organizations already offer 24-hour telephone services for information and advice, usually through the companies' EAP, and counseling services for the caregiver. Considering allocating more money to caregiver support and education seminars is also in the works for many businesses.

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