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How companies can support their employee caregivers during the COVID-19 outbreak

The founder of Working Daughter points out that it’s not just working parents who are challenged during this unprecedented moment in history. Workers with aging parents are under tremendous amounts of stress and employers should take notice and action.

How companies can support their employee caregivers during the COVID-19 outbreak
[Photo: Matthias Zomer/Unsplash]
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Last week, as the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak started to sink in across the country, employers both large and small started to make provisions for employees, when and where possible, to work from home. As the week progressed, schools began to announce longer and longer closures and media outlets were awash in helpful articles and segments about how to support working parents as they balance working from home with children underfoot.

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But it’s not just working parents who are challenged during this unprecedented moment in history. Workers with parents–aging parents–are under tremendous amounts of stress right now and employers should take notice and action.

As nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and even some hospitals restrict all visitation and cancel all group activities and communal dining, adult children who have served as primary caregivers and advocates for aging and ill family members are cut off from seeing and helping them. For those whose parents have difficulty using a telephone or tablet, due to hearing and sight loss or cognitive decline, they may be cut off from almost all communication. And for those whose parents live at home or with them, managing their risk of exposure is also challenging. Should they suspend services from home health aides and therapists and if they do, who will care for their parents? Can they provide that level of care and continue to work?

In the private Facebook group that I moderate for people balancing eldercare with career, the conversation is dominated by members trying to determine the best course of action for their aging parents in the coming months. They are distraught, worrying whether or not their parents are getting adequate care or feeling abandoned or frightened. These same people are reporting to work– virtually or in-person and they need support.

Here are some things employers can do right now.

Start a conversation

Whether via company memo or during staff meetings, or better yet both, owners and managers should acknowledge that their workforce may be wrestling with caregiving issues right now–childcare, eldercare, or both. According to 2013 data from Pew Research Center, an estimated 47% of all middle-age Americans are part of the sandwich generation, supporting parents age 65 and older and children under the age of 18. This number is bound to have grown in the past six years. It is critical that these conversations start top-down because many caregivers are hesitant to reveal to their employers that they have caregiving responsibilities at home. A report from Harvard Business School (HBS) revealed that employees worry that caregiving will negatively impact their career growth. Caregivers perceived, “harmful consequences, such as demotivation due to a lack of challenging assignments (54%), lower salary increases or bonuses (50%), and an unsatisfactory career path (46%).”

Especially now, in this time of economic uncertainty, employers should understand their workforce may be dealing with heightened anxiety related to balancing their work and home responsibilities. By initiating the conversation, and including eldercare in the conversation, employers can begin to address the needs of its workforce, and in doing so, develop plans for managing gaps in business coverage and services as this situation continues to unfold.

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Don’t assume you know who the caregivers are or what they need

While the average family caregiver is a woman in her late 40s to early 50s, eldercare is impacting more and more Americans each day. In fact, 40% of family caregivers are men and 25% are millennials, according to data compiled by AARP. Employers cannot assume they know who the caregivers are on their teams. The best policy is to raise the issue of caregiving needs and ask employees how best to support them. That same HBS report also reported that there is a “gross misalignment” between the benefits caregiving employees want and the benefits employers provide. To best support working caregivers, employers should ask employees what will help them manage through this crisis.

Encourage work-from-home arrangements

While not every business can run with a telecommuting workforce, and not every job can be performed remotely, wherever possible, employers should look for ways to allow caregiving employees to avoid commuting to work. Many of the family caregivers I have spoken to are worried they will be exposed to the coronavirus at work and are pondering what is best for their aging parents–to avoid them or to risk infecting them in an effort not to isolate them. If you cannot support work from home operations, consider allowing employees to commute during off-peak hours, offer parking reimbursement, and let employees self-isolate in conference rooms and away from coworkers and clients.

Focus on, and encourage, employee well-being

Finally, as an owner or manager encourage employees to focus on their well-being and lead by example. Consider sharing and subsidizing apps, podcast and online programs focused on mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. Send reminders to employees to take breaks and brief walks throughout the day and to stay well hydrated–and show them you are heeding your own advice.

There is no doubt our businesses, our workforces, and our institutions will be altered by the COVID-19 outbreak. The employers that navigate this situation with compassion and common sense and an awareness of the career and care connection will be best positioned for the future.


Liz O’Donnell is the founder of Working Daughter and the author of Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Making a Living.