Caregiving taking heavy toll on staff, bottom line

Home Depot's head of HR chairing panel as 'tsunami of seniors' approaches

"We all need to be looking for innovative ways to deal with the tsunami of seniors coming our way," said Sharleen Stewart, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare.

The recently launched Canadian Employers for Caregivers Plan (CECP) is intended to be the lifeline Stewart is calling for, along with many others in the labour community.

The CECP includes the establishment of the Employer Panel for Caregivers as well as the development of business cases analyzing the cost-benefit of various workplace supports and the exploration of mechanisms for sustained employer engagement.

The seven-person panel — to be chaired by Kim Forgues, vice-president of human resources for Home Depot of Canada — is comprised of industry leaders from small, medium and large-sized businesses and will consult expert advisors on caregiving. The panel will seek to consult employers across Canada in an effort to identify successful and promising workplace practices that support employees as they balance their work responsibilities with providing care for a loved one.

Stewart knows from personal experience how exhausting providing care can be when working full-time.

"It’s pretty stressful and emotional," she said of caring for her father at home during the final stages of his life. "He passed away at home, which is what he wanted to do. We’re very thankful that we were able to do that… because of compassionate care leave."

But even with the compassionate care leave, Stewart said the strain of providing full-time care became too much for her family. A personal support worker was brought in to take on some of that burden.

"It puts quite a burden on families," she said. "The sad thing is that people don’t recognize how important these benefits are until they go through it themselves. When it hits you personally, it’s invaluable to have those opportunities. As the senior population grows we know the demand for these programs is only going to increase."

Currently, more than eight million Canadians provide unpaid care to a family member or friend due to chronic or long-term illness, disability or aging. Many informal caregivers struggle to balance their work and care responsibilities, and the Conference Board of Canada estimates that informal caregiving costs employers as much as $1.28 billion annually in lost productivity as a result of caregivers missing work, quitting or losing their jobs.

"Our government will work with employers through the Canadian Employers for Caregivers Plan to help identify cost-effective solutions to support employed caregivers, helping them achieve a better balance of work and caring responsibilities," said Alice Wong, minister of state (seniors). "Our government’s top priorities are creating jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity. That’s why this initiative builds on existing federal measures that include a range of tax credits for caregivers, the Employment Insurance Compassionate Care Benefit and other federal benefits."

According to Employment and Social Development Canada about 75 per cent of caregivers are employed. Seventy per cent of all caregivers provide support to a senior and the majority of employed caregivers themselves are over the age of 45.

Janice Keefe, director of Mount Saint Vincent University’s Nova Scotia Centre on Aging and an expert advisor to the Employer Panel for Caregivers, said there is a clear business case for employers to lead the charge in creating accommodations for caregivers.

"Drawing on employers is a very important piece of the puzzle," Keefe said. "And even though this panel is from the perspective of the employer… there’s a real importance around assessing the needs of the caregiver, and what from their perspective would help to facilitate the responsibilities of work and the responsibilities of providing care."

According to Keefe, about 17 per cent of caregivers spend more than 15 hours a week providing care. Providing care for a family member or friend can involve anything from preparing meals and providing transportation to helping administer medication and providing palliative care.

For those who must also balance the responsibilities of work, time can become a serious issue.

Flexible arrangements including job sharing, teleworking or a compressed work week are possible accommodations for caregivers, Keefe said. Alternative accommodations could involve the development of programs to link employees with other caregivers in an effort to provide support, eliminate feelings of isolation and improve knowledge of available resources and support programs.

"It’s positive, it’s progressive and it’s necessary," Stewart said of the CECP.

In addition to providing benefits and accommodation that allow caregivers to stay home with their loved ones when it is necessary, Stewart said, professional services — like personal support workers — need to be made available as a respite when providing care becomes more intense or specialized.

Stewart said employers need to be proactive in their approach to creating accommodations for workers and be progressive in their thinking. She compared the future of these types of benefits to the current views surrounding maternity and parental leaves.

"We certainly are looking into negotiating this type of benefit into our collective agreements now," she said. "Unions as well as other like-minded interest groups should also be involved in this discussion. The broader the think tank, the better. Innovative solutions at all levels can only be positive."

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