Out of the nearly 40 million family caregivers in the United States, approximately 6 in 10 are employed. In their off hours, they may be caring for a parent, a grandparent, a spouse or a friend. It's an issue that cuts across generations.
But while many companies meet the needs of working moms and dads, "working caregivers" hasn't quite entered the office vocabulary.
That's why United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, in collaboration with AARP and ReACT (Respect A Caregiver's Time), is helping companies strategize about how to better support their employees who also care for older loved ones. I've been working on this project, called United for Caregivers, since moving to Pittsburgh in January.
So where, exactly, can companies start? Here are eight no-cost or low-cost ideas to share with your leadership:
Organize an affinity group. Caregivers often don't identify as caregivers. Instead, they consider themselves daughters or husbands or neighbors. Create a company-wide affinity group to raise awareness and help coworkers share their stories during what can be an isolating experience.
Update your materials. Does the word "caregiver" appear in your employee handbook or new-hire training slides? How about in your annual employee engagement survey? Include caregiving in materials explaining work-life balance and assessing it. Knowledge is power.
Foster learning and dialogue. There are experts in your community who can help caregivers manage stress, navigate legal issues, communicate with physicians and more. Host a lunch-hour speaker series, or invite experts to active, after-hours walk-and-talk sessions.
Compile in-house information. Your company may provide resources (e.g., an employee assistance program) and benefits for caregivers (e.g., reimbursable elder care services) that aren't widely known. Create an inventory and help employees know what's available to them now and in the future.
Connect with services. Even if your company doesn't currently provide caregiver-specific benefits, you can establish relationships with community caregiver services to offer warm referrals. These services, often available through your area agency on aging, may be able to support employees through training, counseling or respite.
Consider flexible work arrangements. Some jobs don't require 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday schedules. Think about offering alternative work arrangements, such as flextime or telecommuting, to allow caregivers to balance their jobs with other responsibilities. Research suggests these policies are good for the bottom line, too, with a return on investment of between $1.70 and $4.45 for every dollar invested.
Train managers to be frontline supporters. The experience of caring for an older adult varies from person to person — and oftentimes from week to week. Educate managers about the demands of caregiving, and encourage them to grant flexible work arrangements based on individual, changing circumstances.
Create a quiet space. Caregivers often have to make phone calls during business hours to reach doctors, home health aides, insurance reps and the like. Designate a quiet space in your office for caregivers to have privacy, as well as the affirmation that they don't have to whisper or sneak outside to make these important calls.
People caring for older loved ones step up every day. In order for caregivers to thrive in their jobs, they need their employers to step up, too.
Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.