It's a hefty tab for both sides. A caregiving employee may feel forced to turn down a job promotion or relocation, radically reduce work hours, or quit altogether. Companies spend more on recruiting, hiring and training, lose productivity and experienced employees, and have higher health care costs for stressed-out workers, according to a 2006 MetLife and National Alliance for Caregiving study. U.S. businesses lose an estimated $33.6 billion a year in productivity with employees who are caregivers full time, at an average of $2,110 per person.
Preliminary research from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work shows that people caring for older adults report more stress and depression than employees who aren't caregivers or who care for kids. The new AARP report says that 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers of older adults have clinical symptoms of depression; one-quarter to one-half meet major depression criteria.
"What people need is flexibility and support, even if they don't need help immediately," says Eliza Pavalko, an Indiana University sociology professor and expert on aging and the workplace. She and colleagues found that when companies have a family caregiving policy, employees tend to stay longer, even if they don't use the benefits, than at companies that don't.
A few decades ago, the man was typically the full-time worker and the woman handled the house, kids, parents and in-laws. "We have this ideal of the perfect worker who doesn't have any distractions from work. This doesn't fit the reality of our lives," says Pavalko.
Mary Blair-Loy, a University of California-San Diego sociologist and author of Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives, agrees. "In many organizations, work is viewed as a demanding single-minded allegiance," she says. "Many organizations have an unspoken culture that devalues and stigmatizes workers that don't seem to conform to this norm."
That's what Kathleen Toomey says her former boss did. While Toomey was working as an office manager for a Boston financial company, both of her parents were diagnosed with dementia. Her brother was taking care of them, but then he had a stroke, followed by Lou Gehrig's disease.
One Friday morning at the office, she learned her father had died. She told her boss she wanted to go. His response: "Is all the work completed? Well, have a nice weekend, I'll see you on Monday!" Her boss would tell her that "my concentration was not with the company and he would always use that as an excuse for not giving me a raise," recalls Toomey, 53.
Now an administrative assistant, Toomey says her current boss couldn't be more supportive. "If I have to be at the nursing home or take my mother somewhere, there's no problem," says Toomey. "If you have a family emergency, you shouldn't have to worry, 'Will I have my job tomorrow?' "
Sally Abrahms has written for Time, Newsweek and the New York Times. Follow her at twitter.com/sallyabrahms.