David Lundy, left, and Sheridan Chaney are both balancing their careers with caring for children and older family members.
After years of raising children, managing a busy public relations career and caring for an ailing mother, Sheridan Chaney’s worlds finally collided.
“We were on a family vacation three years ago up in Mackinac Island, and I got this call that my mother was found passed out on the floor,” said Chaney, vice president of Aileron Communications, a Chicago-based public relations firm that specializes in crisis management. “We had to cut our vacation short. It became obvious that she couldn’t live alone. I spent the rest of that summer emptying out her apartment. I asked to take a leave that whole summer but the business conditions were not such that I could be gone that long.”
Chaney’s boss offered a compromise of a couple of days off each week to move her mother, who suffers from mild dementia, pulmonary disease and other ailments, into an assisted-living facility. But work demands meant that Chaney was often taking calls from clients while packing boxes.
“My husband had to step in and take care of the kids every weekend,” she recalled. “It was a really tough time.”
While Chaney, 43, is an expert at crisis management, she wasn’t fully prepared for the physical and emotional challenges of caregiving while working full time, she said. Few people are, experts say.
A growing number of employees will be taking care of a loved one as the population ages. There are an estimated 65.9 million people, or 38 percent of the U.S. population, caring for someone who is ill, disabled or elderly, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. And nearly three-fourths were employed while caring for a loved one.
Often, the extra burdens on workers are hidden from bosses, as employees fear asking for accommodations or support. But the bottom-line implications for businesses include lost productivity, increased turnover, higher health care costs — and new liability risks related to “family responsibilities discrimination.”
“We have a silver tsunami heading right for us, and it will have a big impact on the workplace,” said Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of The Caregiving Club, a consulting and educational firm that develops support programs. “We have about 38 million people over 65, and in the next seven to eight years it will double. I think that we are a little in denial about what these numbers mean.”
The numbers are already adding up to trouble for workers and companies, several studies show. Full-time workers who are caregivers cost the U.S. economy an estimated $25.2 billion annually in lost productivity, according to a 2011 Gallup survey.
And caregivers report poorer health and more chronic diseases than other workers, which adds an extra $13.4 billion a year to employer health care costs, according to a 2010 MetLife Inc. study.
“Sandwich generation employees are more stressed out than ever before, and this stress presents various health problems,” said Carol Abaya, an elder-care expert and author who speaks to caregiver groups and employers. “The employee is going to the doctor for themselves, and that means employer health costs skyrocket.”
Helping Workers Cope
How far companies can go to help their employees cope with caregiving demands is unclear, but employers who find ways to help ease that burden with programs like elder-care advocates, on-site child-care centers, support groups and flexible work arrangements, often find more engaged and loyal workers, experts said.
“Employees tell us that these are the best benefits we offer,” said Kathy D’Appolonia, senior vice president for workplace solutions at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh.
PNC provides a variety of support for caregivers, including consultations with elder-care specialists, in-home backup care for children and adults and referrals to legal and financial consultants. The company also offers flexible work arrangements, like reduced and compressed workweeks and telecommuting.
“It impacts employee engagement, recruiting and retention,” D’Appolonia said. “It goes beyond absenteeism. You don’t want people to worry about what’s going on back home while they are at work. We need to recognize that employees come to work with these issues.”
EmblemHealth, a New York-based insurance company, has forged partnerships with a number of local and national organizations, like the Alzheimer’s Association of New York, to create a comprehensive caregiving program, according to Greg Johnson, founder and director of Care for the Family Caregiver. Johnson, who is an ordained minister, helped to launch the initiative 10 years ago.
The program features an intranet with educational information and resources, monthly support groups, individual counseling with a social worker and with Johnson, educational sessions to help those caring for dementia patients, and other resources.
“These employees who work six to eight hours a day are caregivers 24-7,” Johnson said, noting that those programs are critical to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Equally important is having a company leader who understands the challenges of caregiving, he said.
“The HR departments can be wonderful, but quite frankly I’m happiest to find an executive who is a caregiver because they get it,” he said. “This isn’t something where you just kindly give out a brochure. You need to really understand what the employee is going through.”
Sheridan Chaney’s boss David Lundy knows firsthand the challenges that she faces.
Lundy, president of Aileron, and his wife care for three parents between them while raising two sons ages 3 and 8. Lundy’s mother, 75, is healthy but leans on him for emotional support. That’s because his father, also 75, has needed around-the-clock care since 2008 after undergoing brain surgery to treat a neurological disorder. He also suffers from dementia.
“It’s all a nightmare,” Lundy said. “I pay the bills, I go to the doctor’s appointments and consult on treatments.”
Last year his 72-year-old mother-in-law suffered a severe stroke that also left her in need of constant care. Lundy and his wife moved her from New York to the nursing home where his father lives.
Balancing caregiving duties with parenting and work can be exhausting, but Lundy said that he worries most about the effect this has on his children.
“Our kids will never know my father as anything but papa who has a problem with his head. And my 3-year-old will not know his grandma as anything but sick,” Lundy said. “It’s really brutal on them. No kid should have to spend this much time in hospitals and nursing homes.”
While the experience is emotionally draining, Lundy said that it has made him a more empathetic employer.
“I’d like to think that, without that experience, I’d be just as understanding of Sheridan and of another employee whose mom was just diagnosed with cancer, but it’s impossible not to be understanding with what I’ve gone through,” Lundy said.
For many workers, caregiving conflicts means choosing between having a job and helping a loved one.
“I think caregivers in the workforce are terrified about losing their job and about their families,” said Sheila Warnock, co-founder of Share the Care, a nonprofit that teaches caregivers how to organize support networks for those in need. “But if employees worry about what’s going on at home, I don’t think an employee who is a caregiver can really relax and focus.”
Kirsten Stafne, 35, was a busy mom and communications manager when her life was upended eight years ago. She and her husband, Scott, had a toddler and a baby on the way when Scott was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, at the age of 32. At first she was able to manage her career and caregiving duties with support from family, friends and co-workers, but as the disease progressed, robbing Scott of his mobility, it became clear that something had to give, she said.
“I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and turn Scott over because he wasn’t able to move himself,” said Stafne, who works for the consulting firm Accenture in Minneapolis. “I’d position him before I left for work and made sure that he had an alert system of some kind. I’d get myself ready, get the kids up and to daycare and preschool, drive 45 minutes to work a full day, and pick up the kids and then my second shift would start at 5 p.m.”
That second job began with making dinner and feeding the children and her husband before doing laundry and getting everyone ready for bed — a process that took two hours for Scott alone, she said.
Throughout her husband’s illness, Stafne worked full time thanks in large part to Accenture’s employee support programs, she said. Scott died in February at age 40.
She was able to negotiate a flexible work schedule and tap a pool of paid-time-off days donated by her co-workers. She also utilized Accenture’s employee counseling program and caregiver referral services. The company also built a wheelchair ramp at Stafne’s home.
“There are so many aspects of caregiving that get forgotten,” she said. “The financial, the emotional, the coordination of care, and there are so many ways that employers can help if they’re open to it. I want employers to understand that having these options won’t hurt their business.”
Stafne said that she is lucky to work for a company that gets it, pointing out that most of the caregivers in her ALS support group were afraid they would lose their jobs if they told their bosses about their situation.
In fact, experts say that caregivers are more susceptible to workplace discrimination, in part because so many must take time from their workday to deal with problems. One survey showed that 64 percent of working caregivers arrive to work late, leave early or take time off during the day to provide care. About 20 percent took a leave of absence.
But employers who penalize their caregiving employees may want to reconsider. Caregiver discrimination lawsuits are rising, according to Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Employees have won nearly two-thirds of the cases, she said.
The largest individual jury verdict to date was almost $11.7 million, which was awarded in 2002 in a case involving a longtime hospital employee who was fired while on leave to care for his parents.
These lawsuits, called family responsibilities discrimination, grew from 444 cases in 1989 to more than 2,000 in 2010, according to a study conducted by the Center for WorkLife and the AARP Public Policy Institute. That represents about a 400 percent increase in the past decade, said Williams, who added that the center currently has more than 3,000 such cases on file.
Williams said the toughest cases to win are those involving elder care. There is no federal law that addresses elder-care discrimination specifically, she said.
“It’s in the employer’s best interest to recognize that today’s workforce needs more flexibility in their schedules because they don’t have someone at home to help,” Williams said. “If an employer still pretends that today’s workforce is like the 1960s when men were hired and women took care of the children, the result will be chaos and turnover because many more people will have caregiving responsibilities in the future. If the employer has the assumption that nothing has changed, they are living in a dream world.”