While American workers face great pressures trying to balance work and care, employers are not offering the benefits these caregivers want. As a result, working caregivers often feel unsupported, and in many cases, at risk, at work, according to a new report from the Harvard Business School Project on Managing the Future of Work. The report is based on surveys of both employers and employees.
“The Caring Company: How employers can help employees manage their caregiving responsibilities—while reducing costs and increasing productivity,” acknowledges that many companies do offer caregiving-related benefits but either they are not what employees actually want, or, they do not encourage employees to use them. The results are damaging for both employers and employees.
Of course the fact that caregivers often quit, reduce their schedules, or take different positions to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities, and as a result suffer lost wages and benefits, is not new. Nor is the fact that employers also lose money due to caregiving in the form of lost productivity, experience, and institutional knowledge, plus the expense of recruiting and hiring new workers. But what is unique to the report is what the authors call a misalignment between employers and employees.
Employers, according to the report, “do not realize the extent to which employees are burdened by care.” Yet three out of four employees surveyed reported at least some caregiving responsibilities. Also, less than a quarter of employers surveyed thought caregiving influenced a worker’s performance compared to more than 80 percent of employees who said it did.” Employers do know, however, that, “caregiving impedes employees’ careers,” and cited unplanned absences, late arrivals and early departures as the top three issues impacting career progression. As a result of this misalignment, “Few employees are willing to admit to their organizations that they are caregivers for fear that it will undermine their career prospects.” Imagine the stress of hiding the realities of your life while on the job.
I don’t have to imagine; I have lived it several times over. I emerged unscathed and secure in my career after my children’s early years only to face different, and perhaps greater, challenges caring for my aging parents a few years later. For the first time in my career, I reduced my schedule to accommodate my caregiving responsibilities and tried to minimize the impact caring was having on my work. When I returned to full time status, I felt what survey respondents cite as one of the challenges in returning to work post-caregiving, “the lack of support from the boss or coworkers for caregiving responsibilities.” Exhibit A: a coworker telling me that she couldn’t count on me based on how I had shown up when my mother was on hospice -two years earlier. As a result, when my husband was hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer months after my eldercare role responsibilities ended, I did not inform my employer for weeks.
My situation underscores the misalignment not only between employers and employees, but also between company benefits and company culture that the report describes. Many companies offer flexible work hours for caregivers but too few foster a culture of care. “More than an investment of dollars, it will require an investment in effort. It will require management to demonstrate commitment through sustained, consistent action, reassuring employees that the organization welcomes openness about caregivers’ obligations and wishes to support employees confronting caregiving issues. That, in turn, will oblige the organization to develop a visible, systematic plan to help employees balance their personal and professional lives, a plan that covers both on-boarding and reentry into the workplace. Organizations will have to celebrate and showcase success stories, so that employees can begin to trust that they will not be directly or indirectly penalized for their care responsibilities.”
As the report astutely states, “The vast majority of those working outside the home actually have two work lives: one as an employee and the other as a care provider.” We must find a way to make work and care compatible. Savvy employers, as the report suggests, will, “design career paths that are more compatible with their employees’ life paths. These career paths will take into account the predictable evolving patterns of an employee’s familial relationships and responsibilities.” They will create caring cultures that extend beyond a benefits package, include an educated and supportive workforce, and aim to boost caregivers’ productivity. Anything less threatens to harm employers, employees, and, the people the care for.
For more actionable advice on creating a culture of care, you can read the report here.