We recently came upon a great LA Times article by Melissa Healy on the topic of caregivers
and the high toll they pay for the role they play
in supporting family members. This is a topic that interests us greatly—our EAP deals with an increasing number of workers who are dealing with the stress or strain of caring for an ill, elderly, or special needs family member. According to the article, about one in every six people is a caregiver and as the Baby Boomers advance in age, that number is expected to increase. Add to that the numbers who will be caring for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many profoundly injured either physically or mentally. The scope of the caregiving issue is significant enough that it prompted the EEOC to recently issue new caregiver guidelines for employers. Many caregivers are elderly themselves—about 30% fall in this category. Many others are sandwiched between caring for elderly relatives and providing child care, a double burden. Most caregivers are employed and the weight of their responsibilities takes a high toll on many aspects of their lives, including their work. Caregiving is an issue employers need to tackle head-on—according to a survey by The MetLife Mature Market Institute, which tracks aging, retirement and elder-care issues for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the cost of caregivers in the workplace may be as high as $33.6 billion a year in missed days, early departures, and on-the-job distractions. The heavy responsibilities of caring for ill or elderly family members also increases the chances that the caregivers themselves will experience financial, physical, and emotional problems. Many are forced to put their own career goals on hold or work reduced hours, and the health risks associated with caregiving are high:

“A 2003 study found that family members caring for those with dementia suffered suppressed levels of immunity for three years following their stint of caregiving, raising their risk of developing a chronic disease themselves. Other surveys have found that compared with the general population, caregivers—especially those with intensive caregiving demands and those already in fair or poor health—are less likely than their noncaregiving peers to attend to their own healthcare needs, less likely to exercise or see their doctor regularly and more likely to eat poorly and drink alcohol excessively.”

How employers can help
Many companies are experimenting with innovative approaches to supporting caregivers. Many large organizations, such as IBM and Raytheon, are offering caregiver wellness programs focused on teaching caregivers how to effectively cope with their responsibilities and maintain their own physical and mental health. Here are some of our suggestion for things that employers can do to support the caregivers in their workplace:

  • Assess the issue in your work force. Take a survey to learn the extent of the caregiving responsibilities in your workplace so that you understand the pressure points and can plan the most appropriate response for your employees.
  • Train managers and supervisors to be sensitive to and alert for workers with caregiving responsibilities and to direct these employees to appropriate support resources, such as an EAP.
  • Learn about and publicize local caregiving resources that can provide practical assistance, such as meals on wheels, transportation services and and adult day care. Publicize these resources in your organization’s newsletter or intranet.
  • Examine your organization’s policies on flexible work hours and work-at-home options. Consider offering your employees more options on when, where, and how they accomplish their work responsibilities.
  • Consider expanding work/life benefits. If you don’t have an EAP that offers work/life and caregiving resources, consider adding one. Research benefit options, such as access to temporary emergency dependent care or paid leave for caregivers that goes beyond FMLA standards, or voluntary time banks where other workers can donate unused sick or vacation time to to caregiving or ill co-workers.

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