Employees ‘sandwiched’: Survey

Aging parents, young children a challenge for employees

Turnover is always a concern in child protection services and service quality often suffers when people are constantly cycling in and out of an agency, said Terry Daly, director of human resource services at Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society.

When Daly started with the organization 25 years ago, the turnover rate was 25 per cent. Over the past decade, it has dropped to about four per cent, she said.

Part of the reason for the improvement is the agency’s focus on employee wellness, including supports for workers caring for aging parents, she said.

“We go to all kinds of lengths to support people. They work so hard here… that when they’re undergoing a crisis in their life, we try to be creative in ways of supporting them,” said Daly.

The agency’s 600 employees have access to eight paid days for family leave. These days are supplementary to sick days and vacation and can be used if a family member (child, parent or spouse) is ill, needs to be taken to an appointment or if regular care arrangements break down, said Daly.

The benefit, initially just for family emergencies, started in 1988 as three days, grew to five days and then eight. In 2009, the average annual usage across the agency was 2.9 days but “when people need it, they use all eight,” said Daly.

Employees aren’t required to give a reason for the days they take, so it’s hard to track if employees are taking days to deal with child care, elder care or some other family responsibilities, she said.

“It’s probably split between elder care issues and child care issues,” said Daly. “Some (employees) will be dealing with elder care and child care at the same time.”

This phenomenon of people having both aging parents and young children at the same time, the sandwich generation, is becoming more prevalent as baby boomers put off having children until later in life and their parents live longer, said Alex Keay, a project manager for Mental Health Week at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto.

“The older our workforce gets, the more this caregiving role is going to be on the rise,” she said.

And Canadian workers are already feeling the stress of that dual responsibility, according to a recent survey by Desjardins Financial Security. Seven per cent of respondents are financially supporting parents and children simultaneously, which 78 per cent said is very or somewhat stressful.

These workers struggle mostly with managing their schedule to make themselves available for both parents and children (37 per cent), visits to health professionals with their parents (33 per cent) and providing psychological support during disability and illness (32 per cent), found the survey of 1,769 working Canadians.

Thirteen per cent of respondents are also assisting parents with daily activities and 47 per cent of them said it is very or somewhat stressful.

Among all respondents assisting aging parents, either with daily activities or financially, 34 per cent said they expect the needs of their parents to increase over the coming years.

To support employees in these situations and prevent drops in productivity, employers need to create an open, supportive environment where workers feel comfortable approaching a manager when they have elder care issues, said Keay.

“There’s nothing worse than being in a crisis situation and being in fear of talking to your employer about taking time off or experiencing emotional difficulties,” she said.

If that open, supportive environment exists, then employees can ask for help, even time off, and managers can reprioritize tasks and bring in co-workers to help out in the short term so the work doesn’t suffer, said Keay.

But if employees don’t feel supported, they won’t come forward and those accommodations won’t be made. Eventually, worry and stress build, potentially leading to burnout or substance abuse, she said.

“We have to be supportive of each other, we have to be supportive of our employees because, ultimately, the workplace will suffer,” she said. “When people feel supported and listened to, one’s mental health is so much better.”

Employers also need to be flexible and have an understanding of what these employees are going through, said Michele Nowski, director of disability income claims and disability management at Desjardins Financial Security in Toronto.

That includes allowing employees to work flexible hours, work from home or make up time if they have to take a parent to a medical appointment, she said.

“Employees in this situation don’t feel that this is a burden on them. They feel this is part of their responsibilities, but it is stressful,” she said.

Employees caring for elderly parents are often juggling that responsibility along with work and other personal responsibilities, which can make it difficult to focus at work, affecting their productivity if they aren’t supported, said Nowski.

“It is in the employer’s best interest to try and support these employees as best they can,” she said.

Employers should reiterate the resources that are available to employees in the company, such as an employee assistance program, or educate them about the resources available in the community through lunch-and-learn sessions so employees don’t have to search for resources on their own, said Nowski.

“A lot of times, you don’t anticipate this situation will happen to you and when it does happen, you are kind of scrambling around trying to find the proper resources,” she said.

But while it’s important for employers to support employees and provide information and flexibility, ultimately, it’s the employees’ responsibility to manage their own stress, she said.

“While it is a stressful situation, it should never be an excuse for poor performance,” said Nowski.

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