Lightening the Load
#evolve Magazine
July 18, 2021

We’re halfway through 2021, and it appears we may have turned the corner on the pandemic. Businesses increasingly operate at a higher capacity and more companies are testing their return-to-work plans. But there’s one segment of the employee population for whom the day-to-day struggle continues: Those workers who are also serving as caregivers. There’s never been a more critically important time to determine which benefits and services will best assist those employees who are caring for others — and also address their own mental health.

The Numbers Add Up

The statistics behind the impending caregiving crisis are compelling: In the U.S., more than one in five people are caregivers, providing care to an adult or child with special needs. Many of these caregivers are also struggling to balance those responsibilities with work. And in a majority of cases, their work productivity is suffering. It’s been reported that:

  • More than 80% of employees say caregiving has affected their productivity at work.
  • 53% of employees report going in late, leaving early or taking time off due to caregiving responsibilities.
  • 33% of caregivers have taken time during the workday to contact doctors, insurers, pharmacists, providers, etc.

What does this all mean for employers? The day-to-day responsibilities and related stress that further tax employees’ emotional, physical and financial health spills over into where they work, resulting in more absenteeism and presenteeism, reduced employee engagement and higher health costs. For example, Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH) found that caregivers cost employers an estimated 8% more — or $13.4 billion per year — in health care costs than non-care- givers because their responsibilities can be emotionally draining and physically exhausting.

In addition to all the medical, financial, legal and societal hardships the pandemic caused, it also contributed to a gnawing gap that many caregivers — the majority of whom are women — have had difficulty filling, between getting their work done, caring for an aging adult and managing remote learning arrangements for their children. For a middle-aged adult living in the sandwich generation, it’s made for a full house with many responsibilities to juggle, and a lot of burden to shoulder when both employers and family were counting on them.

In the end, most caregivers were left feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at not being 100% effective or present in any of those roles.

Jennifer Morris-Pugliese, a care support team manager at CareScout, has seen these scenarios unfold first- hand. Her job is to provide emotional and logistical support during a family’s caregiving journey and help them make the best-informed decisions regarding care needs. In fact, she has done that for my family when a medical issue with my father arose. It was so helpful to have that type of guidance and support available, especially when you get into the nuts and bolts of addressing elder-care issues.

For people who suddenly find themselves in a caregiving role, it often feels like a whirlwind of tough decisions, difficult situations and unending obligations, said Morris-Pugliese. “There’s so much uncertainty in our lives, and when you include caring for someone on top of that, it’s a lot of added stress.”

Not surprisingly, this stress grew tremendously during the pandemic, when there were fewer adult day-care centers and home health-care options available. “The agencies we reached out to were stretched thin. They were more cautious, conducting more training and ensuring they had enough personal protective equipment,” she said. “With less staff available to do the work, caregivers were stepping up to take over more of the physically demanding, day-to-day care.”

While these facilities start to come back online, caregiving capacity may still be more limited than in pre-COVID days. The CDC reports that more than 260,000 people received adult day services before the pandemic. There is concern that some facilities will not have the staff or financial resources to reopen.

Similarly, about 20% of child daycares are not expected to reopen after the pandemic, according to data collected by Kinside, a child-care benefit provider. If that number turns out to be accurate, employers will need to recognize that, for employees who are working parents, their increased caregiving responsibilities will continue. Without child care, many will be making difficult decisions about quitting jobs or reducing work hours. Even for those who decide to stay at work, it may be that their spouse had to quit a job or change their schedule in order to take care of the kids, resulting in new financial issues and added stress.

The Pandemic’s Impact Persists

Amanda Maenner of Maenner Minnich, a Minnesota-based family law firm, is dealing directly with the lingering financial, legal and personal impact of the pandemic, which she feels has weighed heavily on her clients’ mental health.

In particular, we are seeing more domestic abuse cases, a greater impact of alcohol or other substance abuse issues, and more mental health issues, said Maenner. “These concerns may have always existed within the family, but they have really been exacerbated from the stress of the past year, with couples working from home together or suffering job losses, not having access at times to medical care and the other effects of COVID on normal daily life.

“In my area of practice,” she continues, “I see the struggle in balancing career and caretaking responsibilities much more often in terms of a dependent child. The most difficult situations are when parents have rigid work expectations, and no understanding or flexibility from the other parent in these areas, no reliable child care or flexibility in exchange times. That can lead to missed work and ultimately job loss, which in turn can lead to financial concerns and an inability to provide stability for the child.”

Helping to Care for the Caregiver

As Morris-Pugliese and Maenner both point out, the caregiver struggle is real, and it doesn’t go away even after the employee goes back to work. The question then becomes, “What can employers do to help ease the burden on employees as well as the organization?”

First, there is good news on the caregiving front: Employer interest in supporting employees with caregiving responsibilities is growing.

For example, based on employee feed- back, Levi Strauss now offers employees a paid caregiver leave benefit. Last year, Fidelity launched new benefits for working parents, including a child-care reimbursement, flexible work options and enhanced access to child-care coordinators. At ARAG, we’ve created legal insurance plan enhancements that extend services to parents and grandparents, making it easier for caregivers to address the legal needs of their family members.

According to a Business Group on Health survey, 35% of  respondents offer caregiver leave benefits now, and another 28% are considering it by 2022. Echoing this trend, the 2019/2020 Employer Benchmarking Survey reported that 61% of respondents consider caregiving a top priority for them. And while nearly half (45%) believe they are on par with similar organizations in developing caregiver-friendly benefits, almost a quarter (22%) see themselves as below or well below average, a solid indication there is still room for improvement.

Plus, with time being such a valuable commodity in today’s request-and-immediate-response world, it’s no surprise the most popular caregiving benefits are flexible work schedules (84%), remote work (67%) and paid time off (53%), according to the 2020 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report. The pandemic has forced many employers to offer all three of these benefits, at least in the short term.

As you search for ways to offer benefits that are becoming increasingly relevant and truly speak to the needs of those playing a dual role of employee and caregiver, keep these four tactics in mind:

  1. Find flexible solutions and hidden gems that benefit caregivers. Conduct a benefits review to uncover any gaps in the existing program that may not be adequately addressing caregivers’ needs. Also, look for features and services within a current benefit that would improve as a result of more communications. This could include a telehealth option in medical coverage, financial education opportunities through a retirement plan or a caregiving referral service offered through a legal insurance plan.

  2. Stay on top of current laws and trends. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) outlined requirements for certain employers to provide their employees dealing with Covid-19 issues with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave. The Act has been extended through Sept. 30, 2021 with some key amendments that could further impact employers and employees. Understanding which employers are covered and how the paid sick leave provision works will help you gauge whether you may need to beef up your paid leave program to either coincide with FFCRA or be more inclusive for employees. As a barometer, a 2019 WorldatWork survey found that 20% of companies offered paid caregiver leave the previous year.

  3. Take advantage of technology. Employees have become well-acclimated to interacting digitally, whether it’s through online messaging or video calls. So think outside the standard benefits box to offer services ranging from online wellness seminars and EAP sessions to video yoga sessions or lunch dates — it’s an easy and effective way to help employees feel connected — especially those immersed and possibly more isolated in a caregiving situation.

  4. Help employees help each other. Leaders can create a supportive, positive team environment, where employees can be there for each other and support others professionally and personally. Employee resource groups, like those for working parents, for example, serve as an organic, inter- active outlet for employees to have a voice within an organization and advocate for each other and causes they believe in.

The key is to provide benefits that not only help employees care for a loved one, but also address a worker’s physical and mental well-being, because that’s what’s really at stake here.

“We need to help caregivers take care of themselves,” said Morris-Pugliese. “We ask them to remember the standard airline ’oxygen mask’ directions provided before each flight: put your own mask on first before you can take care of others.”

This is your opportunity to provide that direction — and relief — for those employees.

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