HR Professional
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By Jill Harris, Joel Kranc and Duff McCutcheon


Giving care to caregivers

Compassionate care is a benefit for employees needing to take a temporary leave to care for a gravely ill family member who has a significant risk of death within six months. While both the federal and provincial governments provide job-protected compassionate care leave for workers, many organizations are going a step further by implementing top-up compassionate care leave policies in order to provide comfort to employees while boosting engagement and retention at work.


With Canada’s aging population, employees are in greater need than ever before to take leave and care for loved ones at end of life, yet, at the same time, maintain peace of mind knowing their jobs will be there when they return. This increasing need for flexibility is part of an ongoing conversation about how companies should approach and offer compassionate care leave.


“Organizations are nothing without their people, and employees shouldn’t have to choose between their job and caring for a critically ill loved one,” said Tracy Lapointe, vice president of human resources at GSK Canada, one of the first organizations in Canada to introduce a compassionate care benefit in 2002.


Compassionate care survey
To find out more about the compassionate care landscape in Canada, the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) and the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association (CHPCA) wanted to capture some of the different attitudes and policies of HR leaders. After speaking with 692 HRPA members between June and July 2014, opinions and trends emerged.


For example, larger companies are more likely (82 per cent of organizations with 5,000-plus employees) to offer compassionate care leave than smaller companies (46 per cent of organizations between 50-199 employees). Also, unionized organizations are more likely to have a formal compassionate care policy than a non-unionized environment.


And besides the moral need to provide these benefits to employees, HR and businesses are seeing other positive results as well, in the form of more engaged employees who better reintegrate after an absence and are more likely to stay with their organization long-term.


What develops is an organizational landscape where compassionate care makes sense not only on a personal level, but also on a business level.


What’s your policy?
Employee benefits have evolved over the past several decades. Recognizing the changing demographics of the workplace, the amount of leave and health services available to employees have changed, and these are now more prevalent benefits than they once were.


GSK’s compassionate care benefit provides up to 13 weeks of leave over a two-year period, and for eligible employees with at least three years of service, they receive 13 weeks pay at full salary.


“When GSK introduced the compassionate care benefit 12 years ago, it was groundbreaking,” said Lapointe. “We’re pleased to have provided the foundation and catalyst for these programs. From a human perspective, lending a hand to those that need it most is simply the right thing to do.”


And as the population ages and the “sandwich generation” finds itself caring for children and elderly parents, the need for compassionate care benefits has grown further.


“Medical advances, in addition to their many benefits, have helped establish the need for compassionate care benefits,” said Lapointe. “On the plus side, modern medicine has made great strides in helping us live longer and healthier lives. Those advances have also helped create the sandwich generation. While several Canadian corporations have policies to support employees with parental care responsibilities, the compassionate leave benefit is a logical extension of that.”


Employer rationale
There are obvious reasons to provide a compassionate care policy at work. Employers should strive to make sure their employees know their company supports them in difficult situations, including taking time to care for a loved one if needed.


“The reduction in stress [for the employee] will have a positive impact on productivity when he or she returns, and for their team during their absence,” said Lapointe. Survey respondents agreed, adding that having a policy makes it easier for employees to return to work and reintegrate into the working environment after caring for a loved one.


“Providing accommodations for employees caring for family members at end of life is one of the ways to reduce caregiver stress and avoid burnout,” said Bill Greenhalgh, CEO of HRPA. “Workers who are supported through situations like this are [also] more loyal and are more likely to stay with the company.”


In fact, 61 per cent of HR professionals said compassionate care policies increase employee engagement and provide other benefits, including preventing leave caused by stress or mental anguish.


“This is an important leave to have, as when employees are struggling with a family illness and trying to maintain a ‘normal’ work life, it can take its toll and could potentially cause an employee to go off on stress leave,” said another HR leader who responded to the survey. “The compassionate care leave allows an individual to take the needed time off work to care for their loved ones.”


Formal vs. informal policies
According to the survey, a majority of companies offer some kind of compassionate care benefits to their employees; however, a general trend is to allow employees to take leave whether there is a formal policy in place or not.


Lapointe, however, makes the case for creating a formal compassionate care leave policy.


“From the perspective of the organization,” she said, “the certainty and predictability of a [formal] compassionate care program makes it easier to plan a smooth transition for customers, partners and other team members during the leave of absence.”


Sharon Baxter, executive director of CHPCA, agrees.


“A formal policy ensures the accommodation is applied consistently across the organization,” she said. “Anecdotally, when it’s ad hoc, we see people closest to the leadership team getting time off. A written policy ensures fairness for all employees.”


Alison Sargent, senior HR advisor at Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, recommends spelling out the qualification period, qualifying conditions (both of which typically mirror government legislation) as well as the process to request the leave.


“And then there’s financial support – whether or not an employer provides top-up [above the employment insurance provided by the federal compassionate care leave legislation]. Of course it is up to the employer, but it can help alleviate stress for an employee and improve the opportunity for the employee to come back to work,” said Sargent.


Ultimately, the compassionate part of a compassionate care policy is the key element – and that means being flexible.


“Flexibility is the number one consideration – it’s why you offer a policy in the first place,” said Sargent. That means providing flexibility to extend the leave beyond the government maximums, or even flexibility to continue working if that’s what the individual wants.


“Some people want to stay engaged with work during these times, but they require flexibility to take half a day to take someone to an appointment or to recover after providing overnight care to somebody,” said Baxter. “A compassionate employer provides flexibility to allow employee/caregivers to do their work in other ways and then to have some time away when they need it.”


Continuing compassionate care
Undoubtedly, HR leaders believe in some form of compassionate care policy. It may take the form of minimum ESA standards or it may be more robust as a top-up measure, but most believe recognition on behalf of the employee is needed.


Whether companies offer it in a formal manner or not, compassionate care leave is becoming part of the roster of benefits employees are growing accustomed to.


“Since the inception of the Compassionate Care Benefit at GSK Canada, we’ve supported approximately 160 employees – equivalent to almost nine per cent of our Canadian workforce – through some of the most devastating periods of their lives,” said Lapointe. “As an employer, it’s incredibly rewarding to know you helped someone through their darkest days. Further, every time the benefit is used, an employee ambassador for the organization is born.”

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