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Accommodating the Caregiver Employee

By Jennifer Fitzpatrick

Most Americans caring for an older family member also work outside the home. Care giving for an elderly loved one is stressful enough, but trying to manage a full or even part-time job simultaneously can be downright grueling. What can employers do to assure productivity while supporting employees caught in this predicament?
Most employers know what to expect when workers have a new baby. There is maternity leave and more recently even paternity leave. Typically a plan is in place because this type of leave is expected. Coworkers make arrangements to cover duties until the new parent returns, when there may be other snags: a babysitter cancels, the employee is exhausted from minimal sleep so work is suffering, the employee is less willing to work overtime, etc.

Good bosses are experienced in handling these issues and understand that such situations need to be managed in a way that respects the employee’s life changes while protecting the integrity of the workplace.

Many bosses, even sensitive ones, are less experienced in handling caregivers of elderly parents. These caregivers face just as many challenges but usually haven’t prepared for them as well as new parents have.

While most new parents may not have everything organized as well as an employer might like, they have had at least some notice that they were going to be parents. Frequently people become caregivers of seniors literally overnight: Mom had a stroke yesterday; Dad got lost walking around his neighborhood. Uncle Jim broke a hip this morning. These are not occasions anyone anticipates or eagerly awaits like the birth of a new baby.

Elder caregivers face remarkably similar challenges to a new parent. Mom’s adult daycare center might be closing early due to inclement weather. The father with Alzheimer’s was up wandering all night. The caregiver may be less inclined to work extra hours or travel for business during this hectic time.

How can employers support employees with care-giving duties? Consider these five strategies on how to make your workplace more caregiver-friendly.

• Anticipate that care-giving issues will arise. With the aging population, there are more caregivers in nearly every workplace. Thinking ahead about how the organization can respond is an investment in valued employees. Most organizations are mandated to offer Family & Medical Leave Act (FLMA) time off, but are other benefits available through the workplace health insurance plan or an employee assistance program? Can your organization develop some accommodating policies, such as more liberal telecommuting or longer penalty-free unpaid leave of absence options?

• Foster open communication about personal matters that impact work. It’s much better for an employee to tell you what is going on with her mother than for you to wonder why she’s been late six times in a month. To create that work environment, managers need to be genuinely interested in supporting an employee through a tough time. In challenging economic times, employees often are reluctant to open up because of concern they will be penalized with lack of opportunity or even downsized.

• Put it in writing. Supporting valued workers in their caregiving duties is in the best interest of the organization and the worker. A manager and organization are more likely to get better work and increased loyalty from the caregiver. It is always best, however, to put any modifications to an employee’s work responsibilities or schedule in writing, then review it regularly so managers can address any problems that arise in a timely manner. Employers can rescind a special arrangement if the employee is not responsibly following it.

• Understand that caregivers are vulnerable. Caregivers do get sick more often than persons who aren’t care-giving. They have a harder time recovering from injury and illness. They die prematurely more often than others who are not caregiving.

Many caregivers assume their challenge alone or partner with only one other person. Care giving for a senior is a enormous responsibility, and the fewer people helping the more prone the caregiver is to suffer health consequences. Caregivers are also more apt than others to suffer emotional consequences such as guilt, anger, sadness and bouts with anxiety disorders and depression.

Encourage caregivers to seek help from resources such as their local Area Agency on Aging – to find the one serving your region, check out n4a.org. The Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org) is an excellent resource for caregivers of those with permanent dementia.

• Think about having a “caregiver shower.” When there is a new mom or dad in the workplace, many offices host showers. If that is your organization’s culture, throw a shower for the caregiver. Items given vary depending on the individual caregiver and patient. If the employee’s mom has Alzheimer’s disease, a DVD like the movie “Casablanca” can be a good gift because old music and movies can be therapeutic for persons with dementia. A book about caregiving strategies might be good. A gift certificate to a favorite takeout restaurant is always a great idea since the last thing most caregivers want to do when they get home from work is prepare a meal.

The more flexible a workplace becomes about elder care issues, the more likely a manager is to get the best productivity from caregiver employees. Improving caregiver sensitivity at the office truly is a win-win for everyone.

Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C is an author, speaker, educator and founder of Jenerations Health Education Inc. She is a frequent speaker at national and regional conferences and was an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book is “Your 24/7 Older Parent.” Visit jenerationshealth.com.