Leadership Matters

When employees have caregiving responsibilities, the workplace has a duty of care too

By Karen Stone, CHRE

As the workforce ages, the general body of health and wellness knowledge increases and the lines between professional and personal life blur ever further, the concept of a support system has become part of our day-to-day lexicon.

It is likely a term you use yourself, and it is one of the first things we seek out when a health issue (physical or psychological) arises.

Traditionally, we tend to look to our families, friends, health care professionals – and maybe even neighbours, social services or community organizations – for support when our capacity for being resilient lowers. One key support that may be overlooked in the establishment of a support system? Our employer(s).

It is not difficult to see why the workplace may not always top the list when most of us think of who we would turn to for support. We don’t want to miss work, to leave work incomplete, to show what we may perceive as “weakness,” or to even just ask for help.

Yet the workplace has come a long way when it comes to playing a supportive role when health issues arise. Legislation – particularly human rights legislation – has evolved dramatically over the past two decades to ensure that employers and their leaders are required to accommodate employees with medical issues.

However, one of the emerging challenges we are facing is that of supporting not only employees with health issues, but also employees who are caregivers. As this month’s cover story details, an aging workforce coupled with longer lifespans means more health issues impacting the parents, partners, spouses and dependents of employees.

Despite its importance, accommodating caregivers is a conversation that has only entered the mainstream relatively recently. And it’s not just a nice thing for employers to do – in many cases, it’s a legal obligation. Caregiving responsibilities often fall under the category of family status – which means employers have legal duties toward employees in these situations.

In Ontario, family status is a protected ground under the Human Rights Code – meaning that employers have a duty to refrain from discrimination and to provide reasonable accommodations for the employee, so long as those accommodations do not cause undue hardship. This protection has been in the Human Rights Code since 1982.

It falls to HR practitioners to spark innovation and create flexibility to generate solutions to support caregiving employees. One-size solutions are not likely to work for every employee and every workplace, so it’s a challenging task that needs to account for individual circumstances.

But as challenging as it is, it is vital that we create effective supports for caregivers in the workplace. HR professionals have the ability to support viable solutions that support both the needs of the caregiving employee and the needs of the business. We have the opportunity to create strategic, supportive solutions. As a starting point, our cover story offers several points of consideration for designing a great caregiver or eldercare program. There are many more invaluable resources out there for supporting caregivers.

There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to creating a caring workplace for caregivers, while still supporting business needs. While we will always strive for further improvement in this area, we have already achieved a great deal toward the pursuit of weaving care and compassion into the legal fabric of the workplace. 


Karen Stone, CHRE, is chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association.