Making the Workplace Supportive for Caregivers

LBD caregiving can be a full time job. So how do caregivers who are already employed full-time balance their work and caregiving responsibilities? Often, it’s by cutting out time previously spent on their own personal health and well-being. This is a recipe for burnout, not just at home but also in the workplace. And it’s happening all over America. There are over 65 million people providing care for a family member or friend, and nearly 73% of them work either part-time or full-time, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Veronica Woldt, an employee eldercare strategist, gerontologist, LBD family caregiver, and owner of Corporate Eldercare Solutions, LLC offers these insights to help employers provide flexibility and support to their caregiving employees.

What challenges may the caregiving employee be facing at home?
Caregivers face many time constraints between work and home responsibilities, as they take over coordinating doctor appointments and health insurance claims, managing medications, and providing assistance with personal hygiene, meals, home management and social activities, as well as managing financial and legal issues for the person with dementia.

Many caregivers face significant financial strains. This can include travel costs for long distance caregivers, unpaid time off work, purchasing of an increasing number of necessities for the care recipient, and in the hiring and management of professional caregivers or admission to long term care facilities. Family dynamics and mental health can be significantly impacted as well. Spouses and children may feel resentment because the caregiver’s attention is more divided, causing tension and arguments. Coordinating care priorities among extended family members can lead to disagreements and frustration with adult siblings and other relatives, as family dysfunction may peak under stressful situations. Many caregivers also develop depression and loss of sleep. New health issues may arise as a result long term exposure to increased stress, which can affect the immune system. For some, intake of alcohol and other drugs and tobacco may increase.

What signs should an employer look for that indicate a caregiver may be struggling to meet the demands of both caregiving and work?
Absenteeism, productivity and employee health issues are sometimes linked to employees’ caregiver struggles. Look for changes in employee work habits, such as arriving to work late, taking off during the day for emergencies or to attend to more appointments, taking longer lunch hours away from the office, or spending more time on the telephone and/or computer. Employees managing care challenges/problems at home may show signs of increased stress or loss of sleep. A caregiving employee might also turn down promotions, transfers or extra projects.

What support can supervisors and employers provide to caregivers?
Employers can and should acknowledge they have an understanding that the employee’s work/life problem exists. The employee typically wants their employer to listen with empathy for their situation and to offer concrete assistance or flexibility where possible. Providing the employee with referrals to benefits or services like employee assistance programs (EAP) can be very helpful. If an employer does not offer an EAP, consider offering a credit or financial allowance to help pay for an initial (or several) meetings with a geriatric care manager or gerontologist knowledgeable about steps to take to help the employee and the care recipient.

LBD caregivers often struggle with a sense of isolation because of the low level of LBD public awareness. Employers can help raise awareness of LBD within the company by organizing a “lunch and learn” event on Lewy body dementia. Employers can also organize a work-based support group for dementia caregivers; recruit the help of a professional in elder care to facilitate the group. What accommodations are reasonable for an employer to make for employees with heavy caregiving loads?

“Reasonable” in terms of employer accommodations for employees with heavy elder and LBD caregiving loads is dependent on many factors: how the company customers (internal and external) would be affected by the accommodation, the culture, the requirements of the position (can it be performed from home or another location on occasion?) and specifically, the needs the care recipient demands of the care provider (employed caregiver).
Some employers can adopt a flextime policy, using a pilot to test the policy and measure the results before setting a more structured policy. Consider the offering options for caregiver employees:

  1. Allow the employee to adjust their work hours within limits set by the company, to more easily balance caregiving responsibilities. This may include working compressed work weeks (e.g., four 10-hour days) one week and normal work schedule the following week.
  2. Offer job sharing; discuss what might be the most needed and appropriate hours a day (or week) in which a caregiver can commit to working at the company, then seek either another individual in the company that would be interested in this shared position or seek one outside the company.
  3. Allow the employee to work the same set of hours each day, but hours which vary from regular core business hours.

More needs to be done to support dementia caregivers in the workplace. “If I had a magic wand” Woldt said, “I would have business leaders complete an assignment in 30 days: Write a report on everything you can learn about caring for the elderly from those who do the job themselves. Reach out to your own friends, family, neighbors and places of worship, as well as professionals in aging agencies, medicine, finance and law.”

By increasing the number of employers who understand work/life challenges for elder caregivers, the swifter the movement will be to expanding the support to elder caregivers. This will help not just employees, but also employers’ bottom line.