Approximately half of all Americans are caring for an older loved one while working outside the home. Caregiving for an elderly loved one is stressful enough but trying to manage a full or even part-time job simultaneously can be downright grueling. What can employers do to assure productivity while supporting employees caught in this predicament?

Most employers know what to expect when workers have a new baby. There is maternity and more recently even paternity leave. Typically there is a plan in place because this type of leave is expected. Coworkers have likely made arrangements to cover duties for a period of time until the new parent returns. Once the employee returns to the office, there may be snags: the babysitter cancels, the employee is exhausted from minimal sleep so work is suffering, the employee is less willing to work overtime, etc. Good bosses are experienced in handling these issues and understand that such situations need to be handled in a way that respects the employee’s life changes while protecting the integrity of the workplace.

Unfortunately many bosses, even sensitive ones, are less experienced in handling caregivers of elderly parents. Caregivers in the workplace are facing just as many challenges as new parents but unfortunately, have not usually prepared for them as well as new parents have. While most new parents may not have everything organized as well as an employer might like, they have had at least some notice that they were going to be parents. Frequently people become caregivers of seniors literally overnight. Mom had a stroke yesterday. Dad got lost walking around his neighborhood last week, drawing attention to the fact that his memory is fading. Uncle Jim broke a hip this morning. These are not occasions that anyone is planning for or eagerly anticipating like the birth of a new baby. Caregivers for the elderly face remarkably similar challenges to a new parent. Mom’s adult day care center might be closing early due to inclement weather. Sleep may be lacking because the caregiver’s father with Alzheimer’s disease was up wandering all night.

How can employers support employees with caregiving duties? Consider these 5 strategies on how to make your workplace more caregiver-friendly.

1. Anticipate that caregiving issues will be frequently arising in all workplaces. With the aging population explosion, there more caregivers are in the workplace each year. Thinking ahead about how the organization can respond to these problems will be an investment in valued employees. Many organizations are required to offer Family & Medical Leave Act (FLMA) but are there other benefits available through the workplace health insurance plan or an employee assistance program? Can your organization develop some supportive policies, such as more liberal telecommuting or longer penalty-free unpaid leave of absence options?

2. Foster a work environment that encourages open communication about personal matters that impact work. It is much better for an employee to tell you what is going on with her mother than you wondering why she has been late six times in the last month. In order to truly create this environment, bosses need to be genuinely interested in supporting the employee through the tough time. In these challenging economic times, employees are often reluctant to open up because of the concern that they will be penalized with lack of opportunity in the workplace or even downsized.

3. Supporting valued workers in their caregiving duties is in the best interest of the organization and the worker. The boss and the organization are more likely to get better work and increased loyalty from the caregiver. However, it is always best to put any modifications to an employee’s work responsibilities or schedule in writing and to review them regularly. The manager can then address any problems that arise in a timely manner. The employer can always rescind the special arrangement if the employee is not responsibly following it.

4. Understand that caregivers are vulnerable. Caregivers do get sick more often than persons who are not caregiving. They have a harder time recovering from injury and illness. They die prematurely more often than others who are not caregiving. Many caregivers assume the challenge of caregiving alone or partner on care giving with only one other person. Caregiving for a senior is a huge job and the less people helping, the more prone the caregiver is to suffer health consequences. They are also more apt than others to suffer emotional consequences such as guilt, anger, sadness and bouts with anxiety disorders and depression. Encourage caregivers to seek help from resources such as their local Area Agency on Aging—to find the one who serves your region check out www.n4a.org . The Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org) is an excellent resource for caregivers taking care of those with permanent dementia.

5. Think about hosting a “caregiver shower.” When there is a new Mom or Dad in the workplace, many offices will host showers. If that is the culture of your organization, throw a shower for the caregiver. Items given during such an event will vary depending on the individual caregiver and patient. A book or CD about caregiving strategies might be a terrific present. A gift certificate to a favorite take out restaurant is always a great idea since the last thing most caregivers want to do when they get home from work is prepare a meal.

The more understanding a workplace becomes about elder care issues, the more likely a manager is to get the best productivity and loyalty from caregiver employees.

Mature market expert and gerontologist Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.
Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP is a speaker and consultant on age diversity, older customers, caregiving & dementia. She is the President of Jenerations Health Education & an Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. For more information please visit www.jenerationshealth.com.

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