Employers should consider a more inclusive definition of “caregiver,” argues employee caregiving platform Torchlight, which released its annual report titled “Modern Caregiving Challenges Facing U.S. Employees” in January. While caregiving has traditionally been defined as “care for an aging loved one or child with a diagnosis or disability,” the report says, the “modern caregiver” may or may not fit in that limited box — but they may have similar problems regardless.
Torchlight analyzed its user data to see the top caregiving challenges people face whether caring for a child or an elder. Some of these relate to a specific disability, but others don’t.
For elder care, the most pressing problems include housing (tasks such as helping a loved one move or helping them create safe home environments) and cognitive impairment (managing Alzheimer’s or other causes of dementia). For child care, the most pressing problems are mental health (addressing anxiety or depression in one’s child with a concrete strategy) and executive functioning (teaching children organizational skills and basic skills like managing time and setting goals).
This fine line between a caregiver and someone who simply has family responsibilities outside of work is difficult to define, according to Adam Goldberg, founder and CEO of Torchlight. Still, what makes it necessary is that it provides proactive rather than reactive caregiving support, he added. “So many of the things associated with caregiving can be mitigated or avoided by taking steps upfront, and we feel that’s a really important part of caregiving,” he said.
For example, an employee’s child might be experiencing “homework hell” at school. An employee knows to look out for red flags that might signal a problem like a learning disability, executive dysfunction or emotional issues like budding anxiety — all things that can be chronic, costly disorders. These red flags might not turn out to be a traditional caregiver challenge like a diagnosed disability, but if they do, employees can be proactive.
Many caregivers don’t report their caregiving challenges to their manager or HR until there’s a crisis, Goldberg said. That means that when HR hears about it and they want to help, they’re often struck by the suddenness of it. What may end up happening then is that HR decides to deal with the situation by implementing a point solution, also known as coming up with a solution without considering the underlying issues.
“Leading employers are speaking out and saying the traditional benefits approach [to caregiving] has not worked, so we need to take a fresh look at this,” Goldberg said.
One of PepsiCo’s strategies to address the caregiving population includes something that a company of any size could consider: It looks at the perks it already provides and considers how they could be expanded to help caregivers. For example, the company extended its second-opinion medical service provider perk to extended family members and parents of employees, said PepsiCo Vice President of Global Benefits and Wellness Erik Sossa. It’s a good example of taking advantage of something they were already paying for.
The large organization — with 108,000 U.S. employees — offers other perks that caregivers (as well as other employees) benefit from, like flexible schedules and compressed work weeks, parental leave for mothers and fathers, and onsite day care.
“I don’t think an employer is going to distinguish themselves anymore in having a really great pension plan or a really great benefits plan. Those are the prices of admission now. How do you bring value beyond that? That’s going to distinguish some of the leading employers,” Sossa said.
In general, large organizations have more resources and opportunities to offer richer caregiving benefits, like leave time, but small- and medium-sized employers can get creative, said Candice Sherman, CEO of the Northeast Business Group on Health.
Even the smallest employers, she said, can do things like provide a list of nonprofits that offer services caregivers could take advantage of, she said. Also, many communities have community organizations, religiously affiliated or otherwise, that may offer relevant services.
“The more recognition there is about the fact that in any employee workforce, there are caregivers in our midst, I think employers will definitely get more creative and expansive in terms of the kinds of things they think about offering,” Sherman said.
Law firm Balch & Bingham, based in Birmingham, Alabama, is another organization trying to appeal to the broader needs of the modern caregiver. While 20 years ago the term primarily described a woman caring for a child or parent, now it applies to a much bigger demographic, said Director of Human Resources Lisa Arrington. The law firm’s caregiving population includes men caregiving with a partner, grandparents caring for a grandchild and employees in less traditional, blended families.
With caregivers in different circumstances, their first and foremost approach is to listen to employees and ask questions, Arrington said. “What are their needs? We have people in all different seasons of life, and all those needs are completely different from one another. It’s important to find and target things for each of those different groups.”
Balch & Bingham, which has about 425 employees, promotes getting this type of feedback from employees through ongoing discussions rather than one-time conversations. This could happen in a formal context like a one-on-one meeting between a manager and an employee or an organized discussion among the workforce to tackle a specific topic. It can also happen informally, just by passing someone in the hallway and asking how their day is going.
Some of the ways the law firm uses to appeal to caregivers include flexible work arrangements; EAPs that offer caregivers support resources about budgeting, dealing with stress and navigating blended families; and hosting family-friendly holiday events like a Halloween costume parade.
One major thing employers of any size can do differently is have top level executives be open about their caregiving experiences, Sherman said. Many executives have personal experience with it, and as more of them that share their experiences, that can help unveil some of the stigma that may exist in the organization around caregiving.
For example, employees may worry that if they label themselves as a caregiver and admit they have competing caregiving responsibilities outside of work, they may not get put on a big project they’re interested in or get the promotion they’ve been working toward.
Senior leadership has a promising role in relating their own personal stories to their people, Sherman said. “That goes a long way in creating what we as a business group call a ‘caregiving-friendly working environment.’”