Managing caregivers

Respecting the 'sandwich generation'

When we think of caregiving, we might picture mothers and their young children, but that's quite a narrow view.

In 2009, more than 65 million people in the U.S. were providing care for an adult or child who had a disability, medical condition, or other special need. That's more than a fifth of the population. And almost 73 percent of these caregivers had a paid job, too.

Today's workers are turning into the "Sandwich Generation" because they are caught in the middle, caring for the needs of both their elders and their children or grandchildren. Women – and almost as many men – are juggling the ride to school for Junior with the hospital appointment for Mom and the project for the boss.

If this experience hasn't touched you or your organisation yet, it likely will soon. Those of us who live in more economically developed countries are living longer. For example, in 2009, 12.9 percent of the U.S. population were aged 65 or older, but that share is expected to rise to 19 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, the number of people aged 65 or over in the U.K. increased by 11 percent between 2001 and 2011, while the 80+ age group grew by nearly 18 percent in the same period.

In this article, you'll learn why it's important to consider the needs of the caregivers on your team, and how their multiple roles might impact their and their co-workers' work, both positively and negatively. We'll also give you some practical tips for making your workplace more inclusive and productive.

The realities for business

It would be reasonable to assume that a caregiver's work is bound to suffer, due to the many and conflicting demands on his or her time and energy, and that this will impact negatively on the employer. Indeed, U.S. businesses lose between $17 and $33 billion per year in productivity due to their staff caring for elders.

This statistic doesn't tell the whole story, however. A team member who is also a caregiver isn't being irresponsible. By definition, he cares! And one of his top concerns will be keeping his job and protecting his income, because there are other people relying on him.

Many managers assume that the best advice for their team members is simply to leave their personal problems at home and focus on their work. Some take this further, and fear that a caregiver will take advantage of any good will that the company shows her. So they refuse point-blank to accommodate her requests for flexible working hours, for example.

Thinking long term

But the combined effect of your team member trying to "spin all the plates" while not being afforded any flexibility can be damaging to both parties.

U.S. employees who care for elderly family members consistently miss more days of work due to their own ill health than do non-caregivers. Ultimately, they are at risk of burnout, and if they quit with exhaustion, all that time and money you've invested in recruiting, training and developing them will go to waste. You'll need to start over again with someone new, your team's workload will increase, and morale will likely fall.

Secondly, even if you think you can cope with a "rough ride" in the short term, you could find yourself in breach of employment law. In many places, treating people differently from other staff because they care for someone else could be illegal, directly or indirectly. Expensive claims of discrimination on the grounds of sex, disability or age might all be possible. Regulations differ from country to country and state to state, so be sure to check out the situation in your own location.

Lastly, with the demographic odds stacked as they are, it's quite possible that any new recruit who is free of caregiving responsibilities now will not remain so in the future.

All in all, it makes sense to work with your caregiving team members, rather than against them, to find a solution that's right for all of you. Not only can you minimise issues with a bit of careful thought, but you can also do a lot to retain loyal, hard- working and skilled team members.

The opportunities

So, if you were to stick with your caregiving workers, what benefits might they bring to your organisation?

Research for the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis has shown that, over the course of a 30-year career, mothers were more productive than women without children. And a U.K. study found that supporting carers at work can increase productivity and service delivery by more than 20 percent. How can this be?

There's a lot of truth in the saying, "If you want something done, ask a busy person." She's likely to have energy and be a fast decision maker. If she has extra responsibilities to attend to, she'll not linger over routine tasks. But neither will she risk mistakes and having to repeat her work. So you might find that you have a particularly organised and focused individual on your team, exactly because she has to leave on time.

If he's smart, your team member will also look around him and reach out to other carers in the organisation. They'll have a shared understanding of responsibilities, both at home and work, and be able to offer one another emotional and practical support.

They might even be able to provide cover for one another. Together, they could be a real force for collaboration across the usual team boundaries, and improve planning and reliability throughout the business.

Your caregiver might also take opportunities to support her "carefree" colleagues, only too aware that one day she'll need their support in return. This awareness and sharing of goodwill can only strengthen the team.

If both you and the caregiver play your parts well, you'll be able to rely more on his abilities and attitude, just as he feels able to work more at his best. You'll also keep him and his expertise longer, and maintain harmony in the team. The key for you, as a manager, is to see the workplace from a caregiver's point of view.

A new outlook

The best approach to managing caregivers is to accept and respect their responsibilities, and to demonstrate flexibility and understanding, while maintaining fairness and performance standards. Here are some practical tips to help you.

Offer meaningful support

Most caregivers have a lot on their minds. They are, of course, concerned about the well-being of their dependents, but they are also likely worrying about their ability to meet the demands of their job and to make a good impression on you. That's why they might be reluctant to ask for your help until it's nearly too late.

To ease the pressure on both of you, take the initiative. Put in time and effort to build trust between you. Recognise her hesitation, and be sensitive to her needs. Make sure that she knows your door is always open and show her empathy. Reassure her that you do understand the importance of her caregiving responsibilities. That way, she'll grow more open about her situation and the pair of you will have fewer nasty surprises to deal with.

Explain that you would like to find an arrangement that works for the whole team and encourage him to use your company's employee assistance program, if it has one, to access financial, practical or emotional support.

Be flexible

Sit down with your caregiving team member and get creative! For example, is it essential that she works the same hours as everyone else? Could she start later and finish later, or work fewer hours? Maybe she could attend for fewer, but longer, days? In fact, does she have to be present in the workplace – if she's not distracted by care duties, could she work from home for some or all of the time?

The solution might be for the caregiver to reduce his hours, temporarily or permanently, to a pattern that he can commit to reliably. If, in fact, the position needs full-time cover, you could look at arranging a formal job share that's designed to suit the job and the people involved.

There will be times, however, when even the best plans fail and the caregiver needs to disappear at short notice. So consider allowing her to use vacation or sick days to cover such emergencies, but beware of any company requirement to terminate employment after a specific number of absences or late arrivals. Maybe it's time to review such a policy?

Be clear & fair

Your team will be most productive if you all agree on and meet standards of work and behavior: it's up to you to set and uphold those standards consistently, and to treat everyone equally. So, be clear with your caregiver that you expect the same level of performance from him as from anyone else in your team. Don't be unfairly lenient with him if he turns up late, misses deadlines, dresses inappropriately or treats customers rudely, just because he's feeling tired and stressed.

It can be tricky to balance support, flexibility and standards, so keep up your communication with her. Help her to keep her side of the bargain by pointing out our tool designed for caregivers. It's full of useful advice and information to help her organise, prioritise and plan contingencies. Once she puts all of this into action, she'll be doing everything that she can to be reliable, and you'll know that any request for extra flexibility is likely justified.

Give fair notice

You expect your team members to give you as much warning as possible of any absences, so that you can adjust schedules and rosters. In the same way, caregivers appreciate knowing of any new workplace arrangements well in advance. It's difficult for them to change anything in their calendars at the last minute, as they've already committed their time. Bear this in mind particularly if you're planning team-building activities after work you won't want to exclude these valuable colleagues, even accidentally.

Build an inclusive culture

It's your responsibility to ensure that the workplace is positive for everyone on your team, both the caregivers and their colleagues.

Many people do not understand the extra load that caregivers carry. As a result, they might think that their teammate is trying to shirk his working responsibilities by leaving on time, for example, or is getting special, unfair, treatment. Their jealousy and resentment will likely create a hostile and stressful environment for everyone.

Also, belief in stereotypes can lead to more subtle, but no less damaging, behavior. For example, a supervisor who assumes that a caregiver isn't interested in career advancement might not put her forward for training or promotion, whatever her abilities or however hard she works. And colleagues might judge a male caregiver harshly if they hold to the view that only women should have caregiving responsibilities.

You can help build a more positive and inclusive culture by providing formal awareness training for all staff, and informal activities that break down barriers between team members. Then you'll need to adopt a clear and firm approach to dealing with issues as they arise. Finally, you can reassure your non-caregiving team members by being seen to treat everyone fairly.

Support all of the team

While you're putting in extra thought and planning to support a caregiver, be sure to praise the rest of your team members for their continuing dedication to one another and to the wider organisation. Take special note of any negative impact on them of her changing work patterns or unexpected absences, and mitigate it where you can.

Look at how they respond to such challenges and recognise their contribution when they pitch in positively. And help prepare them for the unexpected, by arranging cross- training in one another's skill areas. That way they won't feel "dropped in at the deep                                                 end."

At the same time, consider opening up any new flexible working options for caregivers to all staff. This will make the caregivers less of a special case, as well as multiplying the benefits for the whole organisation.

Seeing the results

And what are those benefits? According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, best-practice flexible policies can bring improvements for both caregivers and companies. Staff achieve a better work-life balance and so are more likely to have higher morale, be more engaged, and remain loyal to their company. Their employers see higher retention rates and productivity, lower absenteeism and costs, and therefore an improved bottom line. Creating a supportive work environment can also attract top talent.

Johnson & Johnson® is a real-life example of an employer that's made the change. The company has 118,000 employees worldwide and offers a comprehensive program for its caregivers. Features include paid time off for caregiver responsibilities, online information, webinars and workshops to support caregivers, and access to geriatric care managers for specialist assessment and advice. Johnson & Johnson sees this as a worthwhile investment, with net gains for the business. And it's not alone.

Key points

As a population grows older, "sandwich" caregiving becomes an increasingly widespread and pressing responsibility for people. This leads to serious stresses that can affect all of your team members' ability to perform.

It's important to take a proactive role in encouraging the caregivers on your team to find a work-life balance. You can:

  • Show empathy and point them to other sources of help . Be creative with roles and hours, for all the team.
  • Uphold consistent standards of performance for caregivers and non-caregivers alike. Provide plenty of notice about rosters and events.
  • Encourage colleagues to abandon negative assumptions. Recognise the contributions of supportive staff.
  • Prepare the team for the unexpected.

These are all ways to build an inclusive, healthy and highly productive workplace.

Apply this to your life

If you have caregivers on your team, take a moment to think about any workplace policies that might impact them unfairly. For instance, do you have a strict attendance policy or working hours? Are these rules set in stone, or can your team still accomplish its goals if you bring in more flexibility? It may be worthwhile to look into making caregiver-friendly changes to these policies to improve the morale and engagement of all your team.


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