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Last week I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business, speak at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She spoke about the balancing act between paid work and unpaid caregiving and said, “The work of care is as important as paid, professional work.” I agree. Denise Brown, founder of Caregiving.com often says, “Our most important work happens outside the cubicle.” I absolutely agree.
Of course our cubicle-bound work doesn’t receive the same value as paid work, if value is defined as dollars. But unless your involved in saving lives, finding cures for fatal diseases, or protecting our national security, who could argue that assisting a family member at the end of their life, caring for an infant at the start of their life, or working to raise happy and healthy humans, isn’t more important than most of the work we do for pay? Our most important work happens outside the cubicle - @caregiving Click To Tweet
The thing is, paid and unpaid work shouldn’t be in competition with each other, but they are. We think of them as separate parts of our lives, vying for our time and attention. Time at work is in direct competition with family time. For example, I logged 60 hours at the office last week. I feel like I was robbed of 20 hours of family time and that the message those extra 20 hours send to my family is that my financial contributions are more important than my being there to listen, to be present, and to provide hands-on care. But they are all important.
And for our employers, time spent away from work or focused on personal matters, is viewed as time we are not giving to our professional work and to the organization’s productivity. That message is too often received as a worker not caring enough about their job.
Balancing your career with the needs of an aging family member
We need a different paradigm. American workers may have been able to compartmentalize work and family years ago but they no longer can. We are no longer a society where a man provides and a woman cares and neither activity interferes with the other. We are a society where men and women both work, where more and more households are led by female breadwinners, and where, while both men and women provide care, the default caregiver is still the woman. As women take on more and more responsibility to provide an income from paid work, the expectation of how much unpaid care they provide has not decreased. And it’s not as if when women go to work another care mechanism kicks in. We frequently hear about the lack of affordable, quality childcare in this country. And we aren’t even having a conversation about the lack of affordable, quality eldercare – but we should be. We need a conversation about affordable, quality eldercare. #workingdaughter Click To Tweet
It is unrealistic, unsustainable, and detrimental, not only for families, but for businesses, to think that Americans can tend to the well-being of their children, their aging parents, and themselves, before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. only. After all, we are no longer limiting work to an 8-hour day. We are expected to be on call and checking messages practically around the clock.
Choosing between career and family
Slaughter said the other night, “Family comes first and if that’s true, then work doesn’t come second.” It makes sense when you think about the reason most people work. We work to provide for ourselves and for our families. We work to give our children a better life than we had. We work to put a roof over our their heads, to pay for their braces, and their college educations. We work to save so we won’t be a burden in our retirement years. And sure, many of us work because we have a dream or an entrepreneurial spirit, because we are feeding our creative passions, because we thrive on achievement. But that’s about family too, isn’t it? Because what a wonderful example we can set for our children when we feel fulfilled and competent and therefore can demonstrate the benefits of self-esteem and self-worth. If family comes first, then work doesn’t come second - @slaughteram #workingdaughter Click To Tweet
So if we are working for our families, then shouldn’t work work for our families? As a society we are increasingly asking American families to free up time and space for our jobs. How often do we say, “I just need to check this email,” or, “I just need respond to this message,” or, “I just need to be on this conference call,” when we are supposedly on family time? If work gave us the same space and support we needed to take care of family business – whether that was time to call the doctor’s office or the school, or time off so we could tend to someone who is sick, or corporate-sponsored family support programs – would it feel like less of a competition for our time and attention? I think so. And if we had the peace of mind that our families were well cared for, would we become better workers? I think so. And there is data to back that up.
Many companies measure the negative impact of employee absenteeism, but there is research that indicates presenteeism, which is defined as time when employees are in the office but unproductive, and estimated to cost employers $150 billion, could be a larger issue than absenteeism. When a caregiver is physically at their desk, but mentally with their young child or aging parent, that’s presenteeism. And it can be addressed. The National Alliance for Caregiving and Center for Productive Aging, Towson University compared the performance of employees who provided care to a parent or parent-in-law before and after they used corporate sponsored geriatric care management programs. The results showed that the employees were more focused on work after using the program than they were before using it.
Slaughter said the other night that her own caregiving experiences have made her a better manager and that her attitude toward employees is, “If you take care of your family then I know you’ll get your work done.” More managers need to understand that. And more businesses need to adopt not just the policies that make having both life and a job possible, but the company culture that make it a reality.