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Do You Know What Caregiving is Costing You?

By: | February 1, 2019 • 3 min read
Carol Harnett is HRE’s Benefits columnist. She is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily. She can be emailed at [email protected]

I was pushed into using several social-media platforms back in 2007, roughly three years after Facebook went live. Even though I am fascinated by most tech-related topics, I actively resisted participating because I couldn’t spare the time. After meeting with leadership of these companies, I was convinced of the value of the platforms.

Frustration hit shortly after I started using social media, as people asked me to play games such as FarmVille and Candy Crush on Facebook, or tweeted about the meal they were eating. In turn, colleagues resisted my attempts to lure them to join LinkedIn. After all, it was before the economy lost 8.4 million jobs and workers couldn’t yet see the benefits of having an online work profile.

Fast-forward 12 years and many of us now use social media to our advantage. My interest is in following how the general public reacts to posts, as well as navigating the ever-changing algorithms social platforms employ to influence viewership.

In mid-January, I posted a link on the Facebook page of the nonprofit organization I lead to an opinion piece written by actor Rob Lowe regarding his experience as his mother’s caregiver. Along with the link, I posted this message: “A recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving found a third of caregivers in America do it alone, without any paid or unpaid help—and this uphill battle can lead to a domino effect of health and financial problems for the caregivers themselves.”

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Within minutes, people began responding to the post—and within two days, 20 percent of our 35,000 followers had interacted with the feed. What makes this reaction highly unusual is I did not pay an advertising fee to promote the posting. And in the current world of Facebook, if you don’t sponsor a post, it is difficult to extract 10 responses from followers, let alone almost 7,000.

I believe there are two reasons why this post spread virally. As I’ve suggested in prior columns, personal posts by celebrities have power because we feel as though they are people we know. Familiarity with the writer brings attention.

But the bigger reason this story grabbed consumer consideration is readers recognized themselves within Lowe’s personal situation. I know I did.

I’ve been a caregiver twice in my life. Both times I was fortunate to be highly placed enough within the company that my requests for flexibility and occasional remote work were accommodated. I was always grateful for that, but I know my career stalled for a period of time as a result. At one point, my senior leader delayed my upcoming promotion while waiting to see if I was “back on track.”

I didn’t lose sight, however, that I was in a better situation than many because my job allowed for flexibility. The trade-off was I worked seven days a week for five years. Whenever I wasn’t involved with direct caregiving or working, I was on the phone with insurance carriers and healthcare personnel or driving—it always felt as though I was in my car.

The financial and emotional challenges of balancing these responsibilities are as onerous as the caregiving duties themselves. During the last year of my mom’s life (she had a short-term illness) I spent tens of thousands of dollars from my savings to offset uncovered costs. I stopped counting after I covered $80,000 in expenses.

Fortunately, I found a way to stay emotionally healthy. I exercised for an hour every morning—a strategy encouraged by my parents—since I’ve always found joy in moving my body. I accepted dinner invitations despite my inability to host people in return as often as I did before I began caregiving. And I learned to ask for and accept help, including from the healthcare professionals who cared for my parents. I remain friends with several of them today.

While caregiving is all-consuming, I never regret one minute of the time I spent doing it. It is a rare privilege to walk the last part of the road with someone you love.

When I read the expanding research and follow the results of workplace surveys on caregiving, it seems most HR executives think I am the exception. But make no mistake: I am not alone in my experience.

I first started writing about caregiving in 2009 and I’ve covered this topic three times in this column. Yet there is little uptake in the recommendations I shared.

I confirmed this belief in a recent conversation with C. Grace Whiting, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving. While organizations such as hers continued to provide statistics, reports and advice to employers on caregiving, and President Trump signed two major pieces of caregiving legislation, we remain unmoved.

If businesses are going to continue to innovate, grow and succeed with a shrinking global talent pool and the lowest unemployment rate the U.S. has seen in half a century, we must address these demands that are affecting productivity and pulling employees out of the workforce.

So, I am going to leave you with one next step: Measure the impact of caregiving in your workplace.

Last month, Harvard Business School’s Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman published The Caring Company: How Employers Can Cut Costs and Boost Productivity by Helping Employees Manage Caregiving Needs. They found in their surveys of employers and employees that only 52 percent of employers tracked data on their workers’ caregiving responsibilities. Yet three out of four employees reported having some type of current caregiving responsibility.

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Debra Lerner, a professor in the department of psychiatry and department of medicine and the senior scientist and program director for the program on health, work and productivity at Tufts Medical Center, and her colleagues developed the Caregiver Work Limitations Questionnaire in 2014 based upon the original Work Limitations Questionnaire. The survey’s focus is to assess the impact of caregiving on workforce performance and productivity.

Lerner found through her work that millions of Americans provide assistance to a loved one who is ill, disabled or aging, and most of these family caregivers are employed.

“After surveying thousands of employed family caregivers, it is clear to me that companies can do more to help working caregivers to function effectively in both roles,” Lerner said. “But helping working caregivers is going to require a shift in how companies manage this task.”

Lerner observed that employers often assign accountability for employees who are caregivers to a single group—typically the employee-assistance program. She believes companies need to reframe this responsibility as a “cross-cutting challenge requiring involvement of those responsible for absence and leave policies, talent recruitment and retention, medical- and behavioral-health services, and job design and job placement.”

I believe Lerner is correct in her recommendation on how to address the impact of caregiving on employees and their employers. But that’s a column for another day. Until then, measure the pervasiveness and impact of caregiving on your workplace. Before you can establish or enhance your strategy to address the challenges of caregiving, you need to understand the extent of the problem in your workplace.

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