Benefits Column

Caring for the Caregivers

As sporadic caregiving tasks transition into heavy responsibilities, employees could use some help from their employers. Here are three lessons for HR leaders to help their workers balance caring for loved ones with their productivity at work.

Monday, February 13, 2012
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I've always been a caregiver of sorts. I derive genuine pleasure from connecting people, sharing information and generally taking care of others.

My first memory of caregiving dates back to kindergarten, after my best friend and I boarded the bus on our first day of school. Candace panicked when the bus driver told us there were two drop-off points, fearing she would never remember what our school looked like.

I calmly reassured her I would get us to the right place -- even though I wasn't certain I could.

Since I've been 5, I've gone on to help friends, siblings and parents recover from minor day surgeries, full-blown catastrophic events and everything in between. You want me around during stressful times.

I didn't think a lot about my caregiver role, however, until my mom recently experienced a health blip. Fortunately, it was not a life-threatening episode, but it was a six-month recovery. She's better than before, but the time between then and now took a toll on me.

My personal experiences may provide HR leaders with some insights on what employees need as they try to balance being productive at work and supportive at home.

Lesson Number One: Help your employees realize they are caregivers.

While caregiving for a loved one can follow a traumatic event such as a stroke or heart attack, more often it creeps up on you.

"Most families don't think they're caregivers until they are two or three years into the role," says Kevin Sypniewski, president and CEO of AGIS and the AGIS Network.

For the majority of employees, he says, caregiving begins with "helping out" with tasks, including simple actions such as bringing in your parents' lawn furniture from the outside at summer's end, managing bills and running errands.

Over time, however, sporadic chores become monthly, weekly and daily commitments -- sometimes totaling 20 to 30 hours a week on top of work schedules and regular home routines.

While my mother's recent situation was tied to an event, I realized in hindsight that I'd been helping her with small tasks since we lost my dad. It's not that my mother was incapable of doing these chores, I simply took over some of the tasks my father did.

Lesson Number Two: Encourage your employees to take care of themselves first.

While much has been written about lost productivity and caregiving, we've paid far less attention to caregivers' health problems. The average caregiver will spend four to five years assisting a loved one. Already overwhelmed, caregivers find little energy for cooking their own meals, exercise or caring for themselves.

"The greatest challenge for caregivers is how to balance their personal lives with 30 hours a week consumed by helping others and extra expenses that can range from $10,000 to $30,000 per year," Sypniewski says.

In the second week of my mother's event, the social worker assigned to her during a hospital stay told me it was time go home for a while, attend to my life and start eating again.

Lesson Number Three: Help employees plan before the demands of caregiving escalates.

Employees need first to keep the extended family member or friend as safe as possible at home. For people experiencing difficulty with walking or standing, removing throw rugs, putting shower benches in bathrooms and placing reflective tape on steps can prevent falls.

Practical issues need to be discussed and strategies developed -- such as making plans for when the care recipient can no longer drive and knowing the location of important documents. When a loved one's condition worsens, caregivers have been stymied when they don't know a computer password, safe combination or safe-deposit box location.

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In my situation, my parents prepared exceedingly well. I had copies of their powers of attorney and healthcare proxies, and knew where all important papers were stored.

Many HR executives have taken the first step in helping employees with caregiving issues by putting employee-assistance and work/life programs in place. Others have gone as far as placing geriatric care managers on call.

But, the challenge with this approach goes back to the first lesson. If your employees don't realize they are caregivers, they won't reach out for help from those programs.

I spent four years researching the potential impact of EAPs on the workplace and consistently found that program utilization generally ranges from 1 percent to 5 percent. The best utilization rate I saw was 12 percent.

In the case of these assistance programs, the movie adage, "If you build it, they will come," does not apply.

So, is there anything HR leaders can do?

Sypniewski suggests there is -- offering proactive employee education that focuses on helping employees identify whether they are in caregiving situations and what options they have to deal with it.

"When you help an audience understand they are caregivers and they realize that 50 percent of the people in the workshop are also caregivers, you capture their attention."

As someone who has been a caregiver for most of my life, I strongly encourage you consider actively educating your employees. Employees will benefit as they gain insight into how to care for others while caring for themselves.

Corporations will profit through the typical inroads of increased productivity and lower healthcare expenses. But, just as importantly, employers will experience improved employee loyalty, engagement and trust.

One thing I can personally guarantee HR leaders is that caregivers always remember those who care for them.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

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