TAKING CARE OF THE CAREGIVERS
What is the role for benefit plans?
“Employers are becoming more flexible on work schedules and offering
more paid family leave.”
President and CEO
National Alliance for Caregiving
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
Employers know the general demographic make-up of their employees—their ages, education, number of dependents and other data. Based on industry research and market competition, brokers can suggest products that might have the greatest appeal to a workforce based on demographics.
But while demographic analysis is a good start, building an effective benefits program requires probing into the individual needs of workers. One method to accomplish this is through formal employee surveys. Another is by encouraging managers to “check in” with workers verbally, asking what the employer can do to make their work life more productive.
These manager “check-ins” became more ingrained at many companies during the pandemic as the number of off-site workers rose dramatically. When employers did it well, employee loyalty rose. Isn’t that what a benefits program is supposed to achieve?
One surprising discovery employers might make when checking in with employees is the significant number of them that are caregivers. According to a survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the AARP, 32 million Americans were balancing work and caregiving in 2020 (representing 61% of total caregivers).
The survey showed that among working caregivers, 60% were working 40 hours a week or more at their regular jobs; another 15% were working between 30 and 39 hours per week. Just over half (53%) of workers said their supervisor at work knew of their caregiving responsibilities; 34% reported that their supervisor did not know; and 13% were not sure.
Full-time employees in the study were devoting an average of 24 hours per week to caregiving for someone. Care included assisting with activities of daily living (food, medication), coordinating medical services, and supporting basic needs such as bathing and dressing.
According to data on caregiving from The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), the largest number of working caregivers were caring for a mother or mother-in-law (33%). Next largest was a son (11%); a father or father-in-law (10%); spouse or partner (9%); a friend or neighbor (9%); daughter (8%); grandparent (7%); and sibling (6%).
The EBRI research defined caregivers as those providing unpaid care for an adult and/or child within the last 12 months in a non-institutional setting and helping the care recipient with at least one activity of daily living. (It did not include standard childcare—only childcare involving special needs.)
Overall, among the retired and current workers, 21% were categorized as caregivers. The study found that a higher percentage of caregivers than non-caregivers fell into the age bracket of 35 to 44—prime working years.
“The study also showed that caregivers were more likely to be female or Hispanic than were non-caregivers,” noted Craig Copeland, director of wealth benefits research for EBRI, at a recent EBRI Policy Forum. “Caregiving can place an additional burden on individuals who may already be at a financial disadvantage,” he noted.
Studies, including EBRI’s, which was part of its 2023 Retirement Confidence Survey, show that for people who take on caregiving responsibilities, there is a decided impact on their finances and their health. In EBRI’s study, for instance, caregivers trailed non-caregivers by 14 percentage points in self-assessments of their household’s financial well-being (35% of caregivers rating it as good or excellent compared to 49% for non-caregivers).
Caregivers rated their emotional well-being and mental health 15 percentage points lower than non-caregivers. (Forty percent of caregivers said it was good or excellent, versus 55% of non-caregivers.)
It’s not hard to see why caregiving by employees is taking this financial and emotional toll. A 2021 study from AARP found that 75% of unpaid caregivers incur substantial out-of-pocket costs, averaging $7,242 per year. Many employees take days off work, reduce their overall working hours or even have to leave the workforce for a period of time to care for someone.
In 2020, 24% of caregivers in the NAC/AARP study were caring for multiple people (up from 18% in 2015), and 40% categorized their caregiving as “high intensity.” Among working caregivers, 11% lived an hour or more away from the care recipient.
Yet, despite the challenges to balancing work and caregiving, Jason Resendez, president and CEO of NAC, noted at the EBRI forum that 51% of caregivers in the study said that their caregiving responsibilities gave them a sense of purpose.
“Employers need to invest in that sense of resiliency,” he urged. “There are some encouraging signs. Employers are becoming more flexible on work schedules and offering more paid family leave.”
Cynthia Hutchins, director of financial gerontology for Bank of America, told the EBRI forum audience, “The demand for support for these caregivers is growing rapidly. Baby boomers are reaching an age when they will need more care, and people are living longer.”
Other trends that could affect unpaid caregivers and their employers, she said, are a shrinking market for professional caregivers and the trend toward in-home care.
Most employers do not devote the resources to supporting unpaid caregiver employees that Bank of America does—Hutchins said she knows of no other company with a person designated as a “financial gerontologist”—but she said, “Demand for support is rapidly growing, and more caregiving benefits are becoming more common.”
That has included paid leave for caregivers, back-up child and adult care, a “caregiving concierge,” and financial planning help, Hutchins said. “Most don’t have the help they need,” she said. “For example, they need help setting up a Power of Attorney.”
Hutchins reminded the EBRI forum audience that unpaid caregivers are helping the person they care for with more than physical assistance. “The social and emotional support they provide is crucial,” she said. “Isolation can lead to cognitive decline.”
Lily Liu, an author and caregiver activist, gave the EBRI forum panel her perspective based on 40 years of caring for her own mother. She likened the need for caregiver support to the flight attendant’s speech before a plane takes off. “If oxygen should be required, first put on your own mask before helping others with theirs.”
When a worker is overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities, they are likely to lose work time, and may leave the workforce earlier than planned, Liu stated. She urged employers “to identify the caregivers in your workforce and to make greater use of flexible schedules. Employer support for caregivers is a win-win. It can be a great recruitment and retention tool.”
Some caregiving employees may be hesitant to discuss their caregiving responsibilities with their supervisors. Still, the research numbers are convincing. The number of Americans who are unpaid caregivers grew from
43.5 million in 2015 to 53 million in 2020, according to the NAC/AARP study; 61% of them were in the workforce.
Helping these caregiving employees stay productive may mean paying greater attention to leave policies, flexible work schedules and other creative forms of support.
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.