Written by: Sophie Warwick
When we think of caregivers, especially when discussing workplace policies, we often think only of parents of young children. However, there are many different types of caregivers who are too often excluded from workplaces due to a lack of support and flexibility. When policies aren’t in place to support these individuals, or at the very least a culture that is supportive with additional needs, there’s a risk of losing great talent.
Who are caregivers and what do they do? Caregivers can include those who care for elderly parents, children with diverse abilities, loved ones experiencing mental and physical illnesses, and many more. Caregivers provide a diverse range of care and some of their duties, although not exhaustive, are included in the list below.
Coordinating appointments and care
Travel to and from medical and other appointments
Preparing meals and/or support with eating
Personal care, such as changing, bathing, dressing
Being easily reachable or close by in case of emergencies
Administering and organising medication
Being a consistent, familiar, and supportive presence in a loved one’s life
Being the go-to emotional support for the loved one
Broadening the definition of caregiver and building workplace structures to empower these individuals to be successful at work allows us to keep more people in the workplace, especially women. According to the 2018 General Social Survey on Caregiving and Care Receiving in Canada, approximately 1 in 4 Canadians aged 15 or older (about 7.8 million people) provided care to a family member or friend with a long-term health condition, a physical or mental disability, or problems related to aging. The median number of caregiving hours was similar for men and women at 1.1 hours and 1.3 hours per week, respectively. However, it was noted that of those providing 20 hours or more of care per week, almost two thirds were women.
That is a huge number of people that typically aren’t accounted for in traditional workplace policies. Many employers are currently struggling to recruit and retain talent and caregivers make up a large hiring pool that hasn’t historically been focused on. Additionally, women are still the predominant caregivers so developing policies to support them would help increase gender diversity in the workplace.
Creating structures to support caregivers is critical to retaining high performing talent. Below I’ve provided my top recommendations on policies and innovative solutions to empower caregivers to excel in both their workplace and personal obligations. The solutions below have been broken into short-term and long-term caregiving, recognizing that someone caring for an aging parent may need a long-term policy to remain in the workplace as their caregiving commitments will likely be measured in years. In contrast, someone caring for a loved one with an acute illness may need short-term support as their caregiving may be measured in weeks or months instead. Although these policies may not always be mutually exclusive, it’s important to recognize that there is significant diversity in caregiver obligations.
Support for short term caregiving obligations
1) Leaves of Absence (LOA). LOAs are a typical component of most employee policies. However, when we think of them, we often relate them more to the needs of the individual or their young children. A culture and expectation needs to be established that all caregivers are eligible for these. An inclusive employee policy should include caregiving as a possible reason for a LOA. Being open and upfront from the beginning establishes a culture that empowers employees to ask when they need additional time off beyond their typical vacation/PTO, flex time, or sick leave. The intention is to interrupt the chance that someone is afraid to ask and instead chooses to seek employment elsewhere, or leave the workforce altogether, before there is an opportunity to support them.
LOAs may also be necessary for long-term caregivers, but in most cases, they are more applicable to shorter term commitments. Depending on the circumstances, flexible working arrangements may be more suited to long-term caregivers (see below).
2) Fostering an environment that promotes open communication of personal needs. Policy sets the precedent, but environment and culture ultimately define whether an employee feels empowered to ask for what they need. For example, many employers have recently implemented unlimited vacation time, but foster environments that value long hours and limited time off. Therefore, even if the policy exists, no one feels like they can use it.
Finding good people is very difficult and keeping them is extremely valuable. Developing a community where team members feel empowered to share their experience and ask for the support they need will ultimately result in higher retention. If people feel valued and supported, they will most likely stay. Better yet, they’ll likely produce better work because they want to give back to those who’ve supported them.
Support for long-term caregiving obligations
1) Flexible working hours. More and more employers are starting to eliminate core hours for those not working in client serving roles or those who have a high degree of independent work. In many workplaces, core hours can’t be eliminated entirely, but it’s often possible to reduce the window to focus meetings within a smaller time frame. For example, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm may instead be reduced to 10:30 am to 2:30 pm (note this also aligns with school drop-off and pick-up). Reducing the core hour window allows employees who are caregivers the flexibility to meet some of their caregiving obligations during traditional working hours while still allowing them to work a full, but extended, day.
Often it can be difficult for a parent of a child with diverse needs to be away for the entire day. If they have the option to start early (perhaps at a time when their loved one is having down time, or when they can get coverage from another support) then they can work a full day while still making it home for afternoon care. It also provides the opportunity to schedule medical appointments which often (in Canada at least) only have availability during traditional working hours.
Enabling the flexibility of working hours allows employees the space to work when they are most productive and show up with energy to both their professional and personal demands. Reducing core hours also has the benefit of introducing more focused, meeting-free time in the day. With travel to meetings eliminated in many cases, I’ve found it so easy to schedule back-to-back meetings with no time left to actually complete tasks.
2) Remote or hybrid working. Many companies are currently defining their remote working policies. In many industries there is a lot of value in building community with your team in person. However, if it’s possible to do the job remotely, in most cases there’s value in providing flexibility to work from home on some days. Depending on the nature of your work and culture, it may be valuable to have days where everyone comes in. If this is the case, consider offering 2-3 days a week (fixed days if needed) where employees can work remotely.
Remote working offers the opportunity for caregivers to make lunch for their loved one or take them to a medical appointment without the need to drive home to get them first. It also provides a few days a week where commute time can be reallocated to caring for their loved one. Additionally, caregiving doesn’t need to be “I need to block this time off to take an elderly parent to an appointment,” sometimes it just means spending quality time with them that isn’t rushed or interrupted by end of the day fatigue.
Policy vs. Case by Case
As with parental leave, I always recommend policies be defined in advance as opposed to addressing needs on a case-by-case basis. This doesn’t mean that flexibility can’t be incorporated to suit a specific circumstance, but it does limit bias and inequity that occur during individualized negotiations. When employees need to negotiate for support after disclosing their situation, they’re left with very little opportunity to advocate for their needs. Additionally, it leaves them in a vulnerable position to have a difficult conversation when living through what is likely a very personal and emotional experience. Defining a policy regarding caregiving makes that conversation, although still potentially difficult, much more accessible. This limits the risk that the employee chooses to leave if they assume they can’t ask for the support they need.
We’ve listed our top recommendations, but every company is unique. What works best for your team may look different. We tailor our recommendations to the needs of your company to provide the most impact. If you’re looking for support in implementing practices to support caregivers at your workplace, don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Canada, G. o. (2020, 01 08). Caregivers in Canada. Retrieved from Statistics Canada: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200108/dq200108a-eng.htm
Canada, G. o. (2022, 01 14). Differences in the characteristics of caregivers and caregiving arrangements of Canadians, 2018. Retrieved from Statistics Canada: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220114/dq220114c-eng.htm