We are getting older, and the aging of society affects our social structures, including our workplaces. This is particularly evident in the intersection of family caregiving and engagement in the workforce. The implications of caregiving on employment, and vice versa, are enormous. But if we face the facts, we have an opportunity to frame the future.
Estimates are that nearly 20 percent of U.S. workers (even more among middle-aged workers) are providing care for older adults, and half of the current workforce expects to be providing eldercare in the near future. They are office managers, truck drivers, corporate CEOs and food-service workers. They are our employees and colleagues, and they are spending an average of 24 hours per week on caregiving tasks.
Although there is still little talk about caregiving challenges at work, the issue is emerging from the shadows.
Caregivers report missing an average of seven workdays per year. Overall productivity losses due to caregiving are estimated at $2,110 per year per employee, adding up to $33 billion annually. Additionally, a 2010 study found that employees with caregiving responsibilities cost employers an estimated 8 percent more in health care costs than other employees. The costs to employees themselves are even more concerning.
The fact that we are living longer is a success story, with caregiving a natural consequence. Smaller, more dispersed families, and an insufficient cadre of paid direct-care workers will contribute to an increasing prevalence of working caregiver concerns. Businesses can be leaders in shaping the way we capture the dividend of longer lives.
Working caregivers are adults of all ages, but prime caregiving years begin in middle age when workers have developed deep skills and become experienced leaders. Employers that find ways to help them manage and balance their career and caregiving will build on, rather than squander, the momentum that their employees have developed.
There are relatively easy options to begin with. Open the dialogue with employees. Recognize eldercare as a legitimate work-life concern. Bring caregiver education on-site so that employees can find efficient and effective help. Encourage use of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for caregiving issues.
A company that understands its caregiving employee population will be compelled to review personnel policies with a new and more inclusive lens. Older adults will outnumber school-aged children in Minnesota by 2020, so it’s reasonable to expect that the nature of caregiving will tip toward the old. Workplace benefits need to follow suit. “Family-friendly” policies that look only at the young end of family life ignore the fastest growing family-related needs in the workforce. In a competitive employment environment, “life span family-friendly” policies will be a boon to recruitment and retention.
Businesses can also benefit as communities strive to become more friendly to those with dementia. Some are offering employee training to make businesses welcoming to the many people who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Participating in and advancing initiatives that make the community an easier place to manage in a caregiving situation will make your company stand out as a good place to do business with and a good place to work.
The fact is, we are all getting older and family caregivers are a large and integral part of the workforce. By taking proactive steps now, employers can frame a mutually beneficial future.
Beth Wiggins is director of caregiving and aging services at FamilyMeans, based in Stillwater, and chair of the Minnesota Leadership Council on Aging.