Caregiving and work: HR’s next big challenge (Guest commentary)

Urgency to develop program, policies to supprot employees
By Nora Spinks and Donna Lero
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/20/2011

Your project lead calls in sick. Well, she’s not really sick — her husband is having a lousy day after chemo. The branch manager needs to take leave next month because his mother is having hip surgery. Your best friend and colleague in another department just got back from England after spending two weeks helping her father move to an assisted living facility.

Combining caregiving and work is the new realty for the more than 2.3 million employees in Canada aged 45 and over. And it’s not just an older worker issue — many younger employees also combine care for an adult or senior while raising children at the same time.

As the population ages, workforce diversity increases, families become more complex and community resources shrink, the challenges of combining work and caregiving will be a reality for a much larger proportion of the workforce.

For managers, this means unpredictable absences, difficulty reaching goals and meeting objectives, and distracted or exhausted workers.

For HR, the challenges signal the urgency of developing new programs and policies or adapting existing ones to support employees and managers facing complex caregiving and work challenges.

According to Statistics Canada, the average employed caregiver spends the equivalent of one full day per week providing care and support — and there may be several episodes of intense caregiving over time.

Each month in Canada, more than 520,000 caregivers miss a total of 1.5 million work days per month because they have to provide care. And every week, more than 313,000 caregivers reduce their working time — to the tune of 2.2 million fewer hours per week — to provide care.

In total, lost productivity annually due to caregiving in Canada is equivalent to the work of 157,000 full-time employees.

“As the workforce ages, as we live longer, as the health- care sector continues to experience resource restraints, we expect that number to climb,” says Janet Fast, a professor with the Research on Aging, Policies and Practice (RAPP) program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Caregiving and work study

A study is underway to examine how Canadian employers in a variety of sectors in the private, public, broader-public and non-profit or voluntary sectors are addressing the challenges related to caregiving and work.

It’s designed to benchmark current practices (formal and informal) and to identify important information and resource needs to support employees and employers.

Researchers are exploring whether workplace flexibility strategies, paid or unpaid leaves, financial supports or wellness programs are available to employees who need them.

Preliminary results (based on 99 respondents) show:

• there is an emerging awareness of caregiving and work issues but it’s not on the radar screen for many organizations

• there are few workplace policies or practices aimed at caregivers of adults and elders

• most organizations believe the flex arrangements and programs originally designed for parents with young children will meet the needs of employees providing care for an adult

• 97 per cent of respondents have experienced employees who have or are currently providing care for a child, while 77 per cent have experienced employees providing care for an adult with a disability or serious/chronic health problem

• as workforces become more diverse, adult care becomes more complex — 59 per cent of respondents have employees responsible for caring for an adult in another province or country

• about one-half of employers in the study (54 per cent) see caregiving supports as an “organizational strategy” while others (46 per cent) see them as an “individual favour” to an employee

• more than 40 per cent of respondents see work-life balance as a high priority, while only 20 per cent indicate child care is a priority and 10 per cent see adult care as a priority

• only five per cent pay employees during a compassionate care leave, seven per cent top up employment insurance (EI) benefits and 26 per cent provide unpaid leave of more than eight weeks

• paid time off (such as the use of personal sick days to care for another) and flexing start or end times is available at 87 per cent of workplaces in the study, while 78 per cent occasionally let employees work from home.

The study consists of a comprehensive online program, policy and practice audit, manager interviews and workplace roundtables.

Survey still open

The survey — a collaborative project of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being at the University of Guelph in Ontario, the program on Research on Aging Policies and Practices at the University of Alberta and ARUC (Alliance de rechercheuniversité-communauté) at the Université du Québec à Montréal — is still open. For more information, visit or

Nora Spinks is CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family and former president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises. She can be reached at Donna Lero is professor and Jarislowsky Chair in Families and Work at the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being. She can be reached at

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