Employees with caregiving responsibilities are under duress, and the time has come for employers to find better ways to support them. As the coupling of family caregiving and job responsibilities pushes some of our most valuable assets to the breaking point, HR teams are taking notice. And it’s hard not to — the commitment to caring for one’s children, aging parents, partners, and relatives is at the forefront of any worker’s priorities.
But these efforts come at a cost for both our people and our business. Over the last 2-plus years, we’ve witnessed firsthand how work can suffer when the emotional and time-consuming stress of managing both a job and caregiving responsibilities collide. Add varied and flexible work arrangements across a diverse pool of employees into the mix, and the problem becomes exponentially more complicated. This is the reality for most Benefits teams, and much like our non-paid, family caregivers, they are overwhelmed.
Many HR teams are motivated to solve this problem, though, mainly because ignoring it will have a continued impact on their bottom line. In the 2021 Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers white paper, “Invisible Overtime: What Employers Need to Know About Caregivers,” it is noted that approximately 18% - 22% of employees are dedicating an average of 20 unpaid hours per week to caring for a loved one. As such a commitment is unsustainable for most employees, it is not surprising that work suffers. Most managers know the tell-tale signs of being stretched too thin: they appear in the form of absenteeism, lower quality work, slower response time, and fewer completed projects.
Some employees have been forced to take more drastic measures in order to care for loved ones. A recent survey from the same organization found that nearly two in ten employed family caregivers had to quit their job. At the same time, more than four in ten said they had to go part-time because of their caregiving responsibilities. Although the pandemic certainly exacerbated these numbers, they indicate a cultural shift in the workplace — employee caregivers need help! They need more flexibility, support, and resources, and they are seeking employment that matches their needs.
In the middle of one of the tightest labor markets in recent memory, where attracting and retaining talent is paramount, employers can solve attrition and become a destination for talent by providing resources that support caregiving and the caregiver. As Joanne Sammer recently wrote for SHRM, once upon a time, onsite childcare represented the gold standard for caregiving benefits. That time has passed as caregiving benefits continue to evolve.
These are the realities of workforces that span as many as five generations with work structures as diverse as an individual caregiver’s needs. It’s overwhelming for many employers who seek to differentiate themselves by incorporating caregiving support into a broader well-being strategy.
To address this, we recently spoke with Deb Smolensky, Senior Vice-President of Well-Being and Engagement at NFP, about what employers can do to create a responsive workplace that prioritizes the needs of its caregiving workforce.
Q: Deb, let’s talk about changes in caregiving benefits. Can you describe how they’ve evolved over the last couple of years?
As Joanne noted in her article, childcare for pre-K kids is just one type of caregiving benefit. These days there is a whole array of scenarios involving children – kids are being homeschooled, parents are caring for children with disabilities, children are caring for parents, parents are caring for adult children. Employees aren’t getting paid to do these things and often don’t have any help, but they have to figure out how to make it work and still do their jobs. It’s overwhelming.
That’s why the definition of caregiving itself has evolved. It’s now being incorporated and prioritized within employer HR and people strategies. Employers are expanding their traditional benefits offering to include care for their talent, for their people. By doing so, they’re not only engaged in efforts to attract and retain talent; they are essentially taking on the role of workforce caregiver.
Employers viewing the world through a caregiving lens quickly gain an appreciation for the complexity of needs, the diversity of their workforce, the nuance and sophistication of solutions, and the expansion of the vendor landscape. This perspective is an advantage when designing their benefits offering. Caring for employees means providing resources that help them care for loved ones as well as themselves. This requires flexibility because people are working in different environments and the challenges they’re facing vary greatly.
Let’s look at a specific example — care for disabled children now includes mental health, with support for 504 and IEP plans, and even private school placement for kids needing additional academic support. Some benefits provide resources virtually to keep kids occupied and engaged while parents attend to an important call or work to meet a deadline. While challenges like these are concerning, expanding solutions to address them is encouraging, and some employees even consider it life-saving.
As I briefly mentioned, another component of this evolution involves providing mental and emotional support for the caregivers themselves. What caregivers take on beyond their day job is stressful and takes a toll. When caregivers burn out, something has to give, and it’s usually a job they quit, not their child or parent. Employers risk losing these folks when they don’t step in to help.
If there was one thing I would emphasize, it would be that you can never overstate the importance of flexibility, empathy and collaboration as you evaluate needs and develop the right solutions. It’s critical to build a shared understanding throughout their organization that stress-free employees are more productive and loyal, which makes them more valuable to the business, and that reducing stress and elevating well-being requires that you are always listening to and understanding their specific needs. Taking this approach can help ensure great outcomes for all stakeholders.
Q: So Deb, caregiving benefits are not entirely new. Many have been in place for some time. Can you share how some of these core benefits have changed recently?
Sure. The traditional, high-value solutions that’ve focused on finding providers or backup care for children and seniors have evolved with more flexibility and an expanded view of the types of caregiving needed. In addition, most are being redesigned to fit a strategy that attracts, retains, and cares for talent.
Childcare support, for example, has more options closer to home and in smaller home environments. There are part-time options and second or third shift hours, not just 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; and full-time contracts aren’t required.
Eldercare may now include expanded access to geriatric social workers. This can help caregivers with difficult conversations or for their own mental health support. Providers may also offer technology for securely storing documents like bills, contact information for doctors or ID cards that the entire family can access. There is also technology that includes private communication channels where an entire family caregiving team can share and access notes and feedback in one place.
Demand for and utilization of resources like home tutoring and virtual support groups are also on the rise because they provide an outlet for the stressors that can be overwhelming our caregivers.
But I guess what’s changed the most is how we view traditional childcare and elder care resources for parents. We now know that there are different needs for full-time, part-time, and gig workers. For that matter, there are different needs for those who work outside regular business hours. New hires fresh out of college want caregiving for pets like insurance, subsidized dog walking, and pet boarding. Kids are facing challenges that either didn’t exist a couple of years ago or weren’t as prevalent. Things like behavioral issues, academic struggles, eating disorders, sitting still for Zoom meetings, or having to sit in class all day with a mask on. Parents need help navigating care options for everything from tutoring to therapy, and we are so far beyond any one-size-fits-all solution.
Q: We’re experiencing one of the most competitive labor markets in recent years, adding complexity to retaining and attracting talent. How do caregiving benefits help employers in this regard?
Well, first, caregiving benefits can no longer be over here just for these people who need daycare or for those who need an in-home nurse. Employees need diverse solutions. To do this, they must be integrated into the benefits portfolio, side-by-side with medical, dental, and vision. This will increase awareness and utilization, benefit all stakeholders, and send a message that employers understand that well-being is much more than going to the doctor or dentist.
This is especially important for an “attract, retain and care for” people strategy. Attracting and retaining are much more complicated if you don’t get the “care for” part right. But when you build a culture that embraces this approach, you’re better positioned to be laser-focused on those subtle changes or needs that you can address proactively as things evolve.
And think about this, when you look from the outside in, job candidates are drawn to employers that view people holistically and support all areas of their lives with holistic and customizable solutions. That creates a decisive advantage when you’re competing for talent. For example, according to a 2021 Secure Retirement Institute study, over 60 percent of unpaid caregivers with benefits such as onsite childcare, caregiving support groups, information resources, referrals, and counseling designed to help caregivers felt that their employers supported their caregiving challenges. Now compare that with less than a quarter of those surveyed without caregiving benefits. This “care for” element has a direct and positive effect on attracting and retaining folks because it shows that employers are committed to elevating the well-being of their employees and families.
One other thing worth noting is that caregiving benefits can also have an impact on retirement savings. When an employee is providing unpaid care, it can be disruptive to a retirement plan, both in the amounts contributed to the plan because of other financial demands or because of career disruptions caused by caring for a family member. This creates gaps in an employee’s ability to prepare for retirement. So the support an employer provides goes beyond enhancing mental and emotional well-being; it also elevates financial well-being.
Q: Final question: How can employers ensure that they are offering relevant caregiving benefits even while employee needs and the concept of ‘the workplace’ continue to evolve?
In my conversations with HR leaders about keeping caregiving benefits current and relevant, I focus on three things:
- Make sure that your caregiving benefits are inclusive, equitable, and comprehensive. In that, I mean they should address all types of caregiving. They should be affordable and high-quality, no matter the employee’s role or where they work. And also, make sure that they’re supportive of both the unpaid family caregiver as well as whom they’re caring for.
- Establish a constant feedback loop, including pulse checks where employees have different outlets to voice their needs, share their struggles, provide comments on current offerings, and suggest options that would make a real difference.
- Lastly, integrate caregiving into your attract and retain strategy and make sure you communicate it across all channels. Be proactive in letting your team know you’re evaluating and designing benefits with caregiving in mind. Let them know that elevating well-being beyond the workplace and the traditional workday is a focal point of your offering.
It’s important to point out that these suggestions don’t have to break the bank or be administratively complex and overwhelming. There are a variety of comprehensive platforms that support both childcare and elder care and include resources, tools and concierge services, as well as digital mental health and mental well-being support, that are cost-effective and easy to implement.
Focusing on these life-work integration solutions will help an employer identify early warning signs of this highly-stressed, vulnerable population and create opportunities to pivot proactively to better support these employees. People appreciate it when you deliver a life benefit that employees want and need based on the feedback you’ve asked for. When you think about it, it’s really about staying connected to your people. Share information, ask for feedback, engage employees in the solutions, and show them you’re willing to evolve as the world around us does.