This past spring, I got that phone call no one ever wants to receive. My mother had experienced a cardiac incident and had to be resuscitated. Mom, heart stopped, resuscitated was about all I heard or understood before I was on a flight.
When I walked into her hospital room the next day, my mom looked decades older than the last time I had seen her. She was stable but weak. I soon learned that the issue was a pulmonary embolism; a big blood clot had traveled from her leg to her lungs and stopped her heart. Had she not been at the hospital when it happened — literally in the arms of a nurse — she would not have survived.
The next several days were some of the most worrisome and stressful of my entire life, and certainly for my dad, sister, and the rest of our family. When my mom was cleared to go home, she faced a double whammy: recovery and physical therapy for her knee replacement (the reason she was in the hospital in the first place), while needing a ton of rest and ongoing monitoring following the embolism.
I spent 2.5 weeks with her, first worrying at the hospital and then helping her at home. All the while, doing my best not to let too much fall through the cracks.
I was only back home for a week when I learned that my grandmother had been rushed to the ER and was in the ICU, awaiting surgery. She is 89 and had been hospitalized not long before. Again, I booked a flight and got to her as soon as I could. For a week, I traded shifts at the hospital with my cousins, aunts and grandfather, spending the night there before and after her surgery.
Fortunately, my mother and grandmother are both doing well now, and the urgency is over. My mom is looking and feeling like her usual vibrant self, and our family is now trying to figure out the right amount of support for my grandparents so they can continue to live independently.
This was all new to me. But my experience is just an example of what is happening all over the country, to millions of families, every day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 44 million people provide unpaid care to elders. And very few people have the flexibility or job security I do. So, in addition to all the stress and fear about their loved ones, they worry about their job and paycheck — and the long-term impact on their career.
I’m more concerned than ever about how we address this within our organizations, large and small. Common-sense programs like referral resources and backup child care and elder care already exist. And although 99 percent of employees surveyed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions said backup care is important in helping them complete their regular work responsibilities, only a portion of employers offer this as a benefit.
There are a host of other programmatic benefits that better support caregiving: extended leave, support transitioning back from leave, flexible schedules and work-from-home options, on-site child care and more. We have seen time and time again that introducing these benefits has a positive impact on the whole company, not just those who use them. Yet, McKinsey’s 2017 “Women in the Workplace” report states “support for parents on an ongoing basis is relatively scarce.”
Clearly there’s an opportunity to provide more programs for employees. But it isn’t enough to simply put benefits in place that support navigating care or filling gaps.
Organizations must also have cultures of trust and compassion, so employees can be transparent about the burdens they manage outside of work and so their work can flex around those needs. This is especially important for women — and the organizations that need to and want to retain them.
The burden of caring for others falls disproportionately on women. They’re more likely to take breaks from their careers to help a family member and they are less likely to have a partner who stays at home to care for the family. The impact in the short term is job insecurity and stress. In the long term, it means women have less savings.
The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement estimates that women caregivers lose an average of $324,044 in wages, Social Security benefits and retirement income over a lifetime. As a result, they’re twice as likely as non-caregivers to end up in poverty.
Caring for loved ones is real life. It is time for us to build work around that reality.
Jennifer Benz is CEO and Founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based employee benefits communications agency. She was honored as one of Workforce’s Game Changers in 2013. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @jenbenz.