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Employer Wake-Up Call: It’s Time to Become “Caring Companies”

Sherri Snelling April 8, 2019
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Experts weigh in on why care benefits will only increase in importance as Americans live longer.

While some U.S. businesses are doing a noble job providing caregiver support at work, a Harvard Business School report published earlier this year shows far too many employers are not delivering when it comes to caregiving. Employers are still struggling to become what Harvard calls “caring companies.”

“While some companies just check the box on offering caregiver support, others are really investing in their workforce because they understand the caregiving challenges better,” says Peter Burki, chairman and CEO of LifeCare, a work-life services company that offers senior care benefits to employer clients. “These employers of choice know that including a menu of options in senior care services has tremendous ROI when it comes to recruiting and retaining loyal employees.”

The need to address caregiving in the workplace has never been more urgent. Today one in six employees are caring for older loved ones and 20 percent of working women are caregivers. This shift is a reboot of the 70s, 80s and 90s when women streamed into the labor force and family support issues first came into focus. By 2035, for the first time in U.S. history, we will have more people over age 65 than children under age 18.

What’s more, caregiving responsibilities are cutting into productivity and retention. One-third of caregiving employees in the Harvard report are taking a leave of absence based on their caregiving duties. These employees give up between $284,000 to $324,00 in lost wages and benefits. Among the employees who leave are critical senior management and senior executive level personnel (53 percent and 61 percent respectively) that few employers can afford to lose.

“When it comes to caring for an older loved one and juggling work responsibilities, it isn’t just the baby boomers anymore. It’s three generations who are now engaged as caregivers. In fact, millennials now make up 25 percent of all caregivers,” says Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP

Workers Need a Range of Family Caregiving Benefits

The Harvard report identifies areas where employees and employers are not in sync. For instance, employees say they want flex time. This benefit was offered by 65 percent of employers surveyed but only used by 39 percent of employees. In addition, seven in 10 employees described referral services for caregivers as “very important” to company loyalty yet only 38 percent of employers felt these services were effective in employee retention rates.

“Employers who truly understand caregiving offer a broad range of options to support employees showing how to really create a culture of care at work because everyone’s caregiving situation is unique,” said Brooks Kenny, executive director of ReACT (Respect a Caregiver’s Time), a coalition of 40 companies and nonprofits formed to provide employers with essential caregiver information and tools. 

Donna Benton, director of the Los Angeles Family Caregiver Resource Center affiliated with USC, agrees. “Caregiving is not a one-size-fits-all experience,” she says. “At different times throughout the caregiving journey, an employee may need help with home care, adult day care, senior living communities, Medicare/Medicaid questions, transportation and other financially draining needs.”

Innovative options may be the answer. LifeCare reports its use rates are 10-15 percent, well above industry averages. Among the most attractive services are a Leave Coach to help with employee transitions in Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) situations and a backup care service.

Backup care is also one of the benefits that Starbucks announced for its 180,000 employees last fall. The retail coffee giant is offering both child care and senior care services—including 10 subsidized backup care days annually for emergency situations when an employee needs on-demand help.

Employers Can Benefit from the Entrepreneurial Caregiving Market

One way for employers to tap into senior care work-life benefits is through the abundance of entrepreneurial services created to help caregivers balance work and life. Apps for home care, personal emergency response systems with GPS tracking, remote monitoring for home safety, on demand transportation services and even personal assistant services to help busy caregivers all are part of a growing caregiving economy.

According to an AARP report, the caregiving market is expected to reach $72 billion by 2020. To help guide employers on the latest technology for caregivers, AARP offers the Employer’s Guide to Digital Tools and Solutions for Caregivers as well as teaming with ReACT on Supporting Working Caregivers: Case Studies of Promising Practices.

Creating a Caregiving Culture Through Communication

Benefits are the foundation for addressing caregiver needs, but many employees report not knowing their company offers support. Filling this gap in communication is a differentiator for “caring companies.”

Consistent communication about caregiving and not just occasional messaging makes a huge difference, as employees don’t focus on these benefits until a caregiving crisis hits.

Language is equally important in communications efforts. Kenny believes many employees don’t identify with the term caregiver–including the 45 percent of caregivers who are men.

“The language that companies use in its internal communications has to be descriptive and identify the roles employees play when they become caregivers—as daughters and sons, as husbands, wives and partners, as siblings or as special-needs parents,” counsels Kenny.

Caregiving Support Is Often A Top-Down Directive

A key to creating a culture of care at work may be the view from the top. Both Burki and LeaMond agree that companies with CEO or C-suite executives experiencing personal family caregiving responsibilities are typically better in supporting caregivers in the workplace.

Burki is caregiver to 90-year-old parents and in-laws. He ensures his company offers robust benefits for its caregiving employees. AARP offers extensive caregiver benefits, including two weeks paid time off for caregiving on top of paid sick leave and annual leave.

“Caregiving is not a one and done generational issue,” adds LeaMond. “The thought leader employers who offer a strong support system for employees know that the 24 million workers who are caregivers right now is a number that is only going to grow in the future.”

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Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist and expert on aging and caregiving. She has been a longtime Alzheimer’s awareness advocate and has also created and worked on award-winning social awareness campaigns including the Nintendo-Starlight Foundation Fun Center program at children’s hospitals, the first campus rape education campaign with the National Rape Treatment Center and the “Picture Them Home” campaign with Canon and the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children for which she was awarded the Corporate Partner Award by NCMEC and the U.S. Department of Justice.

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