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Why employers need to be thinking about eldercare

By Sarah B. Hood

In the middle of a busy workday, you get an unexpected call. Your frail grandmother has suffered a fall – or perhaps your elderly father is exhibiting stroke symptoms. Either way, you hastily rearrange your plans, find someone to cover your most urgent responsibilities and rush to the hospital. Your colleagues and your boss are understanding and supportive through the emergency, but that’s just the beginning.

Over the next few weeks or months, your schedule suddenly begins to fill up with doctors’ visits, medical tests, research into long-term or home-based care and appointments to assist your aging relative with shopping, banking, housework and the multitude of other daily chores they used to be able to handle on their own. This is when eldercare begins to wear you down as it erodes your personal time, your finances and, potentially, your status at work.

For the employee, eldercare can be draining – even crushing. It also has an impact on employers. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that eldercare obligations cost businesses $1.28 billion per year in direct and indirect costs ranging from paid absenteeism to training for replacement workers and loss of productivity from employees who are stressed, overtired and distracted.

A Framework and Literature Review on the Economic Costs of Care, a study carried out by Norah Keating and others for the University of Guelph Centre for Family, Work and Well-Being, says that, among other costs, “caregiver strain and associated states of anxiety and depression” cause increases in health benefit claims.

The clock is ticking

A 2017 Conference Board of Canada report titled, The Juggling Act, Balancing Work and Eldercare in Canada, says, “Human resources and business leaders must understand the impact of eldercare on their employees, as well as on the organization itself,” because this is an issue that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

“In 2016, there were more than 5.9 million seniors in Canada (up 20 per cent since 2011), accounting for 16.9 per cent of the population. The senior population is projected to grow further, reaching nearly one-quarter of Canadians by 2031,” wrote Nathan Battams in A Snapshot of Population Aging and Intergenerational Relationships in Canada, a June 2017 publication from the Vanier Institute of the Family. The proportion of Canadians over the age of 84 is projected to grow from 2.2 per cent today to 5.4 per cent by 2047.

Combined with a shrinking birth rate, this means Canada will have fewer working-age people to look after more elderly people in the future. Currently, just over one-quarter of employed Canadians already have eldercare obligations, and just under one-fifth are juggling both child care and eldercare demands. The Vanier Institute says, “In 2012, there were 8.1 million family caregivers in Canada (28 per cent of the population). This includes 966,000 senior carers, 4,247,000 working-aged (25 to 54) carers [and] 1,251,000 young carers (aged 15 to 24).”

Although employers have an obligation to accommodate eldercare responsibilities to a reasonable level (as an element of family status), “Employers are slow to recognize this,” said Vanier Institute CEO, Nora Spinks. “Of the few that are actually doing it, only 50 per cent are doing it strategically. Organizations that understand this phenomenon and address caregiving more strategically will benefit as well as the individual.”

Burden of care

“You’re going to see more caregiver strain,” said Nicole Stewart, principal, Total Rewards Research with The Conference Board of Canada. “Employers are going to see more burnout and absenteeism; some accommodations and being flexible will help both sides. About one-third of employers do have a program in place. More often, it’s unpaid leave. I think you’re going to see more and more employers looking at their strategy.”

Brenda Enright is a franchise owner with Home Instead Senior Care, based in Etobicoke, Ont.

“Oftentimes, caring for an aging parent is viewed differently than caring for children,” she said, pointing out that employees may feel guilty asking for accommodation, with the result that they may choose to leave the job rather than face the stress of asking for special consideration.

Although men certainly handle their share of eldercare responsibilities, women are more likely to take primary responsibility.

“Women tend to deliver the day-to-day and personal care. Men play a role, but it tends to be things they can schedule, like lawn care,” said Spinks.

“Daughters in the workplace continue to make sacrifices at home and at work,” said Enright. “As women, we tend to have very broad shoulders and take on so many different responsibilities. Many women out in the workforce have children and also have an aging loved one to look after.”

Home Instead research indicates that in the workplace, 91 per cent of female caregivers report having had to take action to accommodate being an employee and a caregiver. One-quarter of working daughters say they find workplace stigma around being a caregiver, while 23 per cent have found their supervisor unsympathetic, and 13 per cent have been penalized because of their caregiving responsibilities.

Lightening the load

In The Juggling Act, The Conference Board of Canada recommends six steps in retaining employees and helping them stay productive while they’re coping with eldercare responsibilities:

  • Assess the extent to which eldercare obligations are already affecting employees.
  • Consider measures that are already in place.
  • Align strategies with needs.
  • Be flexible in terms of response.
  • Prioritize managerial and organizational support.
  • Keep communication open and adjust accommodations as necessary.

Where to start? There are numerous ways to begin to assess eldercare needs within the organization. For instance, “Contact your employee assistance program (EAP) and find out how many people are accessing services,” said Spinks. “A quick way to get a ‘pulse check’ is to host a lunch-and-learn session and see who shows up. You could also look at your employee surveys to see whether you have a question about caregiving.”

“A starting point would be through a survey or informal conversation – or probably quite a few informal conversations – seeing what’s going on and what’s not,” said Stewart. “Most of the appointments [required] for eldercare are in the middle of the day, so it’s easier in a professional services firm; it’s more difficult when you have a lot of shift workers. Training for managers is another big piece.”

Sensitivity is key.

“Whether it’s a large or small organization, employers need to take a step back and create a culture shift where employees feel enabled to ask for the support they need,” said Enright. “And where employers can be flexible to demonstrate empathy and offer support while still supporting the needs of the business.”

In a smaller business, support could be as simple as a list of vendors and community service providers.

“[Recommend] resources to assist employees in their home life,” said Enright.

The perfect program?

What does a great eldercare leave program look like? First of all, it has flexibility, says Spinks.

“An employee has the ability to access an eldercare leave with little notice. They can use some vacation time or sick days. If it suddenly becomes a home-care situation and they need to be off for a few weeks, it should be retroactive to the first day they started it. They should have the ability to fracture it: ten weeks total could mean two weeks now and two weeks later – unlike maternity leave, which is continuous.”

This requires an agile workforce and supportive workplace, says Spinks.

“If you work for an organization where you can be open and honest and say, ‘I need to be with my mother this week,’ and put a bounce-back message on your email about your availability, it’s a very different story than when you have to pretend you’re sick,” she said.

A great program is also empathetic, says Enright.

“I’ve met with daughters who felt frustrated because of the unpredictable nature of caring for an aging loved one: at 9 a.m., things are fine; at 1 p.m. they’re in the ER. I [tell them] that this journey is not going to be wrapped neatly in a nice package with a bow – it’s going to be unpredictable, messy at times.”

There are many practical accommodation strategies, beginning with existing EAP services.

“Programs are trying more and more to make their benefits programs and some of their perks more flexible,” said Stewart. For instance, “There are organizations that offer different types of concierge services to the employees that could be leveraged for eldercare. The EAPs can refer you to facilities, to programs, to all different kinds of resources; it’s a good place to start for an employee.”

Home Instead Senior Care’s Daughters in the Workplace website offers a range of free tips and resources, plus a quiz on caregiving in Canada.

Ultimately, says Spinks, accommodating caregiving responsibilities is a good way to build employees’ loyalty, “but if you ask them to make a choice between care for a loved one or their employment, most people are going to choose the former.” n

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