Support for employees providing support

Elder-care responsibilities impact one in four Canadian workers and those numbers will soon grow. Is your HR department recognizing this reality?

As HR departments tackle the need to play a stronger role in keeping staff physically and mentally healthy, employers will have to face elder-care issues.

It’s a critical issue as workers find themselves shouldering extraordinary responsibilities outside of work. How significant is the elder-care burden? According to the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being at the University of Guelph in Ontario, the number of Canadians aged 65 and over will double from roughly four million to nearly eight million by the year 2026. In a study the centre conducted, entitled 150 Canadian Statistics on Work, Family and Well-being, one in four Canadian employees reported that they or another member of their household provided care or support to an elderly family member. This number is expected to grow consistently as the elderly population increases.

For employees with elder-care responsibilities life becomes more and more complex.

Terry’s story

For three years, Terry watched her mother suffer multiple strokes, leading to a dementia so severe she could no longer remember how to walk or eat. Terry (not her real name) shouldered most of the caregiving responsibility, visiting her mother daily, cleaning her house until it was sold, and arranging the details of her care. She often struggled with the grief and anger that surfaced with increasing regularity as her once beautiful and intelligent mother grew disoriented.

If these pressures weren’t enough, Terry had a four-year-old marriage to nurture, a blended family of seven children to rear, and a stressful job as an executive assistant on Parliament Hill. “I thought I was Wonder Woman,” Terry admits today. “I didn’t think I had permission to look after myself.”

Danielle’s story

Danielle (not her real name) finds everyday to be a balancing act. She works full time as an office manager in a Cornwall, Ont., real estate office, managing the activities of six different brokers. Her eldest son recently broke his leg so severely that he required a three-hour procedure to repair it. He is off work for the next four months recovering. Danielle has the responsibility of cleaning his apartment, taking care of groceries and providing financial support.

Then there are her parents. Both are in their 80s. They continue to reside in their own home, but their health is declining rapidly and their level of independence is waning. While Danielle has been successful in engaging home-care services for them, she maintains responsibility for their finances, as well as their health-care decisions.

“When something’s gotta give, it’s usually time for me,” Danielle acknowledges. The burden of family support has taken its toll on her. Recently diagnosed with high blood pressure and soaring cholesterol levels, Danielle now realizes that her health is being compromised.

Most Canadian workers are searching for that delicate balance between work and life’s numerous responsibilities beyond the office walls. Typically, however, organizations expect employees to show up and be fully present in their jobs, free of any telltale signs of the other responsibilities they carry. A nationally representative survey, conducted in 1999 for the Conference Board of Canada, confirmed that two-thirds of Canadian workers feel that they are expected to leave their personal problems at the door of the office. In her 2001 study, Work-Life Balance in the New Millennium, Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, found 58 per cent of surveyed employees reported high levels of work-family overload. These workers felt rushed, drained or overwhelmed by the multiple roles they occupy.

To create and maintain high performance work environments in the face of such pressures, some Canadian employers are stepping up to the challenge of creating family supportive work environments. According to research, there are several critical success factors in addressing elder-care issues. These include:

•participative management — a stronger focus on leadership and the important role managers play in creating positive and supportive workplaces;

•employee involvement — participative career planning and skills development;

•innovative and flexible work options — flex-time, family responsibility leaves, job-sharing, telework, and compressed workweek options;

•a strong customer orientation — a strong connection to the meaning of work, the contribution employees make and to whom;

•a commitment to optimum performance — engaging employees through the use of their skills and knowledge, opportunities for ongoing learning; and

•expanded employee assistance plan benefits — leave and benefit provisions that address the new reality and the increasing burden of elder care.

The role of managers and supervisors is critical in the creation of the supportive workplace. Unless managers have faced their own issues related to elder-care responsibilities, organizations cannot expect them to be equipped to deal with this new reality. Managers need to appreciate that building a family-friendly work environment is part of the company’s culture, part of the code of conduct, an expectation. They will need to see senior managers and executives walk and model this talk if they are to embrace supportive behaviour for themselves.

Training for managers is critical if they are to help employees balance their personal and family obligations with work responsibilities. Managers need to understand the issues around aging and caregiving, especially the demand these issues place on employees. Because the key is preventing caregiver burnout, managers must spot early signs of stress and burnout, know how to raise the issue with employees and ably help them identify the resources they can tap for support.

As for human resource departments, it is important that they understand employee concerns and anticipate the support required. HR departments would do well to assess the number of employees within the organization who are actively caring for aging relatives and of these, determine the proportion that’s supporting relatives living at a distance. They should identify the community support networks that exist for elder care and make the information available for employees through the organization’s intranet, newsletters or library. Finally, offer on-site expertise by engaging the services of an elder-care expert or by developing such expertise among in-house HR professionals.

Juggling work and elder-care responsibilities is a delicate balance, one that the Canadian employees will be increasingly expected to perform as the population ages. A comprehensive approach to work-life and elder-care issues can help minimize caregiver burnout, turnover and loss of productivity.

Betty Healey is a keynote speaker and author of RoadSigns: Travel Tips for Authentic Living, published by Creative Bounds Inc. For information, call Creative Bounds Inc. at (800) 287-8610 or e-mail [email protected].

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