Sandwich generation feeling squeeze

Employers need to support workers caring for kids, parents: Report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/17/2013

As a senior manager in audit at KPMG, Sarah Boon leads teams of varying sizes, from three to 20, conducting audits of public and private companies throughout Vancouver. She also helps lead a team at home, with three young kids.

Boon is able to balance the load by working five days per week during the busy audit season of January to March, and four days in quieter times.

“I’m very focused on making sure it’s four days,” she said.

Elder care, however, is less of an issue because Boon’s parents live on the East Coast and her older sister can take on those responsibilities (and their parents are still caring for their own parents).

An increasing number of employees — known as the sandwich generation — are providing care for children, elderly parents or both, according to a Canadian study, based on a survey of 25,021 employees in 2012.

By gender, 45 per cent of men had child care, nine per cent had elder care and 17 per cent were in the sandwich generation. Among women, 36 per cent had child care, 15 per cent had elder care and 20 per cent were in the sandwich generation, said Balancing Work, Childcare and Eldercare: A View from the Trenches.

“It’s the perfect storm — people are having kids later, we’ve got this huge baby boomer cohort leaving and medical science has meant that people live longer with chronic disease,” said Linda Duxbury, professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, and co-author of the study.

And yet Canadian employers are complacent, she said, particularly when it comes to elder care. “They don’t see it as something systemic.”

There has been plenty of attention on child care but it seems like HR considers elder care an end-of-career issue, said Duxbury.

“But our data’s not saying that, our data is in fact saying that more and more younger people are dealing with it and that, as the boomers leave, this could be a make-or-break thing for generation X.”

Impact includes stress, burnout

The amount of time devoted to caregiving duties can add up to several hours per week, on top of the more than 45 hours per week devoted to work by 60 per cent of the employed caregivers in the study. As a result, people give up on sleep, personal time and a social life.

There is also a higher risk for burnout and stress. Men and women in the sandwich group miss more days of work per year (13.4 for men and 19.4 for women) than those with no dependant care (seven for men and 10.6 for women).

Role overload can also lead to increased absenteeism and poorer physical and mental health. And employees who are overloaded are less likely to agree to a promotion or attend career-relevant training and often cut corners at work, found the study.

Employed caregivers are also more likely to be absent from work, use employee benefits, be less productive and devote fewer hours to work.

“You’re swimming and doing it OK, you’re just coping, and then all you need is a change with work, a change with your kids, a change with your marriage or a change with your parents and the very fragile balance you have tips completely,” said Duxbury.

This can wreak havoc on succession planning, she said.

“‘I’m barely getting by and you want me to compete for this position? I don’t think so.’”

One of KPMG’s newer programs is geared to women and their advancement, trying to keep them in the workforce longer, said Kristy Carscallen, partner and CHRO at KPMG in Toronto. A huge part of that is “getting them to tell their stories about how they balance a successful career and a family or elder care, whatever it may be, so we try and do that monthly,” she said.

The company also emphasizes the need for people to set boundaries, said Carscallen.

“In a very client-focused organization, it could be all-consuming, so we try and share stories, for example, on how different people do it, so maybe they go home and have dinner with their families or children, and then maybe they go back online for an hour.”

The emotional strain of caregiving duties is also a factor, said the study, and employers should consider an employee assistance program (EAP), seminars on how to manage the emotional aspects of caregiving, and lobbying for or taking responsibility for the provision of community centres with programs for seniors.

Emotional distress can be more taxing than the time spent on tasks, said Mara Osis, president of ElderWise in Calgary. And it doesn’t end, for example, when a parent moves into a retirement home.

“You may not be physically spending the time doing the running around but you’re still living with that feeling that you’re saying the long goodbye to your parents,” she said. “I know many people who have been at it for a decade or more, and they never thought it would be this long. And they propose solutions on the assumption that, ‘Well, this will just be for a short while and then things will work themselves out.’”

Employer support lacking

One-quarter of 111 interviewed respondents said they received no support from their employer around issues they face balancing work and caregiving, said the study, which recommended steps to improve the situation, such as compressed workweeks.

Employers keep thinking about it in terms of flex-time but the data says very unequivocally these people want compressed workweeks, said Duxbury.

“They don’t want flex-time, they want a whole day where they can run around and ‘take my dad to the doctor, I can take my mum to the pharmacist, I can do some grocery shopping for them.’ They need to be available during work hours for their parents because that’s when doctors, nurses are available.”

Caregiving support networks at the workplace can also help, said the study. These are important because many people feel very alone and think they are the only ones going through this, said Osis.

“A lot of us, perhaps women more so than men, have been trained to think that we should be able to handle it all, that’s what we’re there for. So if we’re having trouble with that, we just need to try harder, it’s something wrong with us.”

KPMG has a lot of different networking events at the national and local level, said Boon, with people talking about the arrangements they have to deal with their roles, such as working from home.

“Sharing that kind of information, that’s definitely part of our culture. And as that number has crept up, for more people with families at the manager level, the culture is changing and responding to that,” she said. “The more we talk about creative solutions and provide examples for people about how they can make it work, the better they will feel and the more supported.”

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