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Has Work Become Your Respite? The Reality of Working Caregivers

By Lisa Weitzman | 06/15/2021

A tired working caregiver massaging their forehead

What does being a working caregiver look like?

It is 11:30 a.m. You are in the midst of presenting to a potential client. Your cellphone rings, breaking through your “Do Not Disturb” block. It is your mom. You worry that she has fallen, excuse yourself and answer the call. No, Mom assures you, nothing is wrong; she is just calling yet again to ask if she can start the laundry. She has clearly forgotten the conversation you had before you left for work, promising to help her with the laundry tonight and asking – if not begging – her to stay off the perilous basement stairs. You are desperate to retain your composure, but you aren’t sure how much longer you can manage mom, the kids and your job responsibilities – let alone schedule your own appointments, pay the bills or take much-needed time for yourself.

Rest assured: you are not alone. In 2019, approximately 73 percent of employees are responsible for some type of caregiving, and one in six workers are caregivers for an older adult. This role is fulfilled not just by middle-aged Americans: 6.2 million millennials make up 24 percent of unpaid caregivers, and one study shows that 14 percent of them have left the paid workforce completely, unable to balance work and caregiving responsibilities.

What is the financial impact of being a working caregiver?

The financial impact alone of caregiving on the working caregiver is staggering. The services provided by unpaid family caregivers are valued at $430 billion annually, about the size of the annual Medicaid budget. In return, caregivers aged 50 or over lose, on average, $300,000 in wages, pensions, retirement funds and benefits over their lifetimes, while 70 percent of caregivers experience work-related problems (decreased hours, unpaid leave, demotions and job performance issues) directly tied to caregiving. And these figures do not account for the emotional toll of caregiving, including increased rates of anxiety, depression, stress, chronic diseases, isolation and strain from the changing dynamics within a relationship. 

What can be done about the stigmas of being a working caregiver?

If the impact is significant and so many are feeling it, why aren’t we talking about caregiving at work? Why do we proudly show pictures of our children but never mention that we are caring for mom, dad or other older loved ones as well? After all, so many of us need “reliable, affordable care so we can go to work and provide for our families. But, we also need to work to afford said care” (“Leading With Care,” Care@Work). And in this “real-life, day-to-day paradox” lies the essence of the problem: the stigma around caregiving.

Employees fear that managers will think that they are not “all in” at work if their caregiving demands are known, which will negatively impact promotability, salary and benefits. Therefore, working caregivers may try to hide their external commitments, which only serves to exacerbate the stress and strain they experience. Those who are working caregivers likely know that the energy spent just on dispelling any negative misperceptions can negatively impact productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism at work.

So, where does all of this leave us? On a personal level, we might:

  • Contact our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits provider or our HR department to determine if we are eligible for caregiver benefits.
  • Connect with local community-based organizations to assess if periodic respite or adult day care is appropriate.
  • Allow ourselves the space to practice self-care. Because time is limited, we might even explore telehealth options we can access during lunch – or even on the drive home from work.

On a professional level, we might:

  • Do our part to create a workplace culture that supports working caregivers.
  • Normalize caregiving by openly sharing our experiences.
  • Educate others about the caregiver benefits available to them. Help to convert service offerings into real benefits.
  • Celebrate the caregivers on our team as we work to transform the corporate culture into a truly caring company.