Do employers care about caregivers?

Panel – including Pfizer, EY, BMO – discuss government report, challenges for HR
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2015

Most employers are generally aware that more employees are becoming caregivers. But many are surprised and concerned that this informal care already involves more than one-third of Canada’s workforce — and it can be costly when it comes to lost productivity.

Those were just a few of the facts highlighted by the federal government report When Work and Caregiving Collide: How Employers Can Support their Employees Who Are Caregivers. The report, from Employment and Social Development Canada, presents the findings of the Employer Panel for Caregivers, which consulted 114 Canadian employers from 18 different sectors. 

The report — along with caregiving challenges in general — was discussed recently by a panel in Toronto presented in partnership between the Human Resources Professionals Association and the Forum of Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors. 

“The stats indicate that caregiving indeed has become a normative part of our mid-life. Many of us will have caregiving responsibilities, if we don’t already, and caregiving will come in many shapes and sizes,” said Donna Lero, professor at the Centre for Families, Work & Well-Being at the University of Guelph in Ontario, during the panel discussion. 

“Caregiving is not a standard experience — it’s one that has unpredictability and uncertainty in it. And it’s one that has many different varieties, which makes it perhaps a little more challenging to think about what can (HR) provide.” 

Scope of the issue

Many employers are just not aware of the full scope of the issue, said Stephen Shea, managing partner of talent at Ernst & Young in Toronto.

“It’s a really hidden issue, and it’s a very serious one,” said Shea, who is also chair of the Employer Panel for Caregivers. “Every case is unique… (but) one thing that is uniform about it is this is a highly stressful environment to be in if you are dealing with elder-care issues.”

The most recent statistics from Statistics Canada indicate older workers — those 55 and over — now comprise 18.8 per cent of the labour force, up from 10.5 per cent in 2001, said Lero. 

“They are the fastest-growing proportion of the workforce and they are the most likely to have caregiving responsibilities,” she said. 

The issue runs much deeper than most employers realize because many employees manage to juggle responsibilities without asking for special accommodations from work, said Marcella Daye, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa. 

“Most employees actually manage their caregiving and their work obligations without the employer ever hearing about it. They successfully grocery shop for their parents, they take a spouse to medical appointments or they pick up a child from a special needs advisor without their employer even knowing that there’s an issue. So I would say that a lot of Canadians are doing this and not being recognized,” she said. 

“However, for some, the dilemma and the stresses on their time, their finances and their emotional energy can have an impact.”

When that impact creates a conflict between work responsibilities and caregiving responsibilities, there may be a legal obligation to accommodate the employee, said Daye. 

Under the radar

Some employers are on the cusp of adapting organizational approaches and strategies for caregivers — but many are still not sitting up and taking notice that this is a growing issue, said Lero. 

“Many are still seeing this as low priority or under the radar screen. They’re accommodating individual employees, perhaps, but most have not yet adopted an organizational approach or appreciated that supporting caregiving employees folds very well into a broader approach to work-life integration, and to employee engagement,” she said. 

It’s estimated that over the next five years, 49 per cent of the workforce in the United States will have some form of family caregiving responsibility, said Jack Watters, vice-president of external medical affairs at Pfizer in New York City. Yet as widespread as the issue may be, many caregivers choose to stay under the radar.

“Most caregivers don’t announce themselves. There are all sorts of reasons for that, not least of which that people feel ashamed,” he said. “(But) in the workplace, if you don’t bring your whole self to work, it is not possible for you and your employer to work in optimum partnership.”

Caregivers have to juggle so many different responsibilities that without assistance, eventually something has to give, said Watters. And usually that thing is self-care. 

That leads to a whole lot of employees who are unable to cope, said Lero. 

“What we see is absenteeism, we see job loss and people having to take early retirement, we see people reducing their hours of work, and we see people under a lot of stress,” she said.  

What are employers doing?

But while many employers don’t yet have a strategy for caregivers, there are some that already have programs in place, such as Pfizer.

Its programs include a geriatric assessment program for employees, backup family child care and mental health programs. Pfizer also has a program that enables e-visits, so if the person being cared for is going to the doctor, the IT department will help the employee be virtually present at the appointment, if she can’t physically get there.

There’s also a coalition Pfizer started called ReACT (Respect A Caregivers’ Time), which has about 40 large organizations in the United States — including Microsoft, Intel and Bank of America — as members. 

“It just makes business sense,” said Watters.

EY has taken a close look at its pre-existing flexible work arrangements, said Shea. 

“We have a lot of them and we have a lot of flexibility in the way we build that in. Whether it’s extended vacations, whether it’s paid leaves, unpaid leaves, flexible work arrangements, technology to work at home — all of these things exist to manage what was more conventionally the work-life balance issue often related to childrearing. And we hadn’t really reframed it in our own minds to the pressures of elder care,” he said. 

“We’re going to put this program in place coming up in the spring, take a lot of the tools that we have, take a lot of the tools that we covered in the report that we don’t have, put them together and start the dialogue.”

The Bank of Montreal has been working with EAP provider Ceridian and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto to provide a support program for caregivers, said Natalie Scott, managing director of global benefits and recognition at BMO in Toronto. 

“We’ve partnered with a truly outstanding group of health-care professionals in delivering something called Working CARERS… (for) employees who are actively working, they’re a part of our workforce and they’re also trying to care for family members with dementia or Alzheimer’s,” she said. 

The program invites employees to participate in group support sessions led by trained professionals from Mount Sinai, who provide caregivers with practical skills. It differs from the confidential, individualized nature of most EAP offerings, said Scott. 

“This was really about inviting people to come forward and be a part of a group, be a part of a cohort, hear from each other, learn together, learn from each other,” she said. 

“It was a bit of a risk — would employees show up? Your confidentiality kind of gets parked at the door when you show up. But what we found was that we actually had standing room only… we had over 100 employees come forward for our intro sessions.”

What’s next?

As employers develop caregiver strategies in the workplace, it’s important to keep the focus on strategy instead of ready-made solutions, said Lero. 

Flexibility is one of the keys — there is evidence that flexible work arrangements, which are some of the easiest to implement, can have substantial effects on absenteeism. 

And a flexible workplace can help employers go further than just meeting the minimum legal obligations, said Daye. 

“Building an inclusive workplace can actually allow an employer to go beyond the bare minimum legal obligations — in other words, avoiding a lawsuit or a complaint being brought against you — and it can help create the circumstances whereby most employees and more employees will be able to manage their caregiving obligations and their work obligations successfully,” she said. “Flexibility... can help avoid the accommodation question from even arising, and we really promote that preventative action.” 

A culture of support is also critical for keeping employees engaged and encouraging them to actually use the solutions available to them, said Lero.

“Developing that culture that respects caregivers — which does not cost much at all… that kind of support goes a long way in terms of employee engagement, loyalty and productivity.”  

Employer reactions to caregiving dilemma
The federal government talked to 114 employers across Canada to hear their thoughts on caregiving — here are the highlights:

• Employers are generally aware of the trend towards informal care, but not the magnitude. While many felt caregiving would be an area of focus in the coming decades, they were surprised and concerned that it already affects 35 per cent of the Canadian workforce. They see the need for a thoughtful and focused approach to the issue within their organizations.

• Most employers addressed the needs of employee caregivers on a case-by-case basis, often using flexible hours and technology. No organizations reported having specific policies or programs in place to support employee caregivers. Many formal employer-led programs and practices exist to support flexibility; these are often “loosened” to apply to broader caregiving needs.

• Barriers to providing support include a lack of awareness, the nature of the job and leadership support. Many organizations are not aware caregiving is an issue affecting their workforce, often because employees do not self-identify as caregivers. Across companies of all size, barriers are often related to the employee’s role in the organization and the nature of work in particular industries. The visible commitment of leadership is critical, as is manager training to create a supportive environment and respond to sensitive situations.

• While employers clearly expressed this is “the right thing to do,” they would like to better understand the business case of supporting employee caregivers in the workplace. Many participants felt employee engagement and greater retention provide sufficient proof of the value of providing support. However, it was agreed that business case information would help to sell the concept of caregiver support to senior leadership, and provide a framework for evaluating the level of involvement.

• There is significant appetite for knowledge and tools to increase understanding of caregiver needs and develop tailored solutions. Employers seek user-friendly information and broad policies that they can adapt to their own needs rather than restrictive, one-size-fits-all legislation. An employer toolkit — such as the Resource Toolbox provided at the end of this report — would help organizations of various sizes, sectors and locations access resources including workplace practices, domestic and international websites, case studies, programs, services, and training information.

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