As more employees self-identify as caregivers for family members and friends, employers are starting to address the needs of workers who struggle to balance work while caring for others.

The numbers are staggering. One in six U.S. employees identify as a caregiver for a family member or friend, according to research by Family Caregiver Alliance. An AARP study found that U.S. businesses lose more than $25 billion annually in lost productivity due to absenteeism among full-time working caregivers, and that figure grows an additional $3 billion when part-time workers with caregiving duties are accounted for.

“Of today’s 40 million family caregivers, 24 million are juggling caregiving responsibilities and employment. By recognizing and supporting their needs, employers can improve productivity and foster a stable and healthy workforce,” says Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP.

With that in mind, Northeast Business Group on Health and AARP have released a resource guide for employers who wish to ease the burden of the caregivers among their workforce. According to Supporting Caregivers in the Workplace: A Practical Guide for Employers, the authors recommend that employers create a corporate culture of awareness, draft workplace policies, benefits and programs, obtain the support of top executives and implement new services throughout the work force.

The guide also suggests employers offer paid sick days that can also be used for the care of a relative; in-house stress-reduction programs such as yoga, meditation; massage discounts and online or in-person coaching to assist in developing a care plan. Employers are also urged to offer digital tools to help employees manage their caregiving duties and provide legal and financial counseling for employees.

Employees who are preoccupied with the care and wellbeing of a parent, sibling or child have an impact on the workplace in both their quality of work and in potential medical claims.

“Trying to balance those responsibilities however large or small does have ramifications for the folks who are doing the caregiving,” says Candace Sherman, interim CEO of NEBGH. She says caregivers often feel lonely and isolated due to the demands placed on them and they often experience depression and anxiety when dealing with their caregiving roles.

“They're often spending their outside-of-work time providing care as opposed to socializing and oftentimes they neglect their own mental and physical well-being in favor of making sure that whomever they're caring for has what they need,” says Sherman. “Ultimately, that shows up in healthcare claims down the road.”

Fighting the stigma

By creating a culture of awareness around caregiver needs and responsibilities, employers may shake the resistance employees feel when identifying as caregivers.

“We found that there's a bit of a stigma in terms of folks raising their hand and saying ‘I'm a caregiver and I'm having some trouble,’” says Sherman. She adds that this impulse is similar to employees’ overall reluctance to admitting that they have a mental health issue.

“Employee caregivers might worry that if their colleagues know they're caring for someone, their manager will think ‘I've got this great new assignment but this person's overburdened right now,’” she says. “Or maybe they're up for a promotion and they feel they won't be considered because people know that they have other responsibilities outside of work.”

The caregiving guide recommends employers “ensure that managers at all levels are aware of the company’s policies regarding flex-time, leave policies and other benefits that caregiving employees can access, and should encourage them to openly support employees using these benefits.”

The guide also recommends that providing paid leave to these employees “might be the single most important consideration for employers when thinking about creating a caregiving-friendly workplace.”

Benefit administrators appear to be getting the message. Respondents of a July 2017 survey of benefits executives and managers from roughly 130 companies said that if they could roll out “two new policies, programs or benefits tomorrow to support caregivers, they would expand leave policies and coaching, wellness or support services designed to support caregiver well-being.”

The burden is not just on employers to act to improve the workplace for caregivers, they have to come to terms with their duties and the impact it has on their personal and work lives, says Sherman. Caregivers are slow to identify themselves as such because of cultural and societal roles that engrain our sense of family responsibilities.

“We have all been there or we’re close to people who have been there in terms of caring for someone who's ill or elderly. We are ingrained to view it as we're caring people and this is just something that we do, so people don't self-identify as caregivers,” Sherman says.

She adds, “But if you're a caregiver and you're balancing those responsibilities, they can range from checking in with a family member a couple of times a week or making a run for groceries or medications to much more intensive duties that occupy several hours a day.”

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