Caregiving & Going It Alone: When Life at Home Impacts Productivity at Work

It's no secret that future disruptive demographic changes will have profound implications for the relationship between employers and employees. But what's less well known is that some of those demographic shifts have already arrived. Luckily, employers already have the tools to deal with some of today's changes immediately and affordably.

Last week I gave the keynote address to the annual meeting of CUPA-HR, a group of human resources professionals who serve institutions of higher education. Rapidly changing demographics will be a major source of grief – and opportunity – for HR professionals in the not-too-distant future. And in the meantime, two major demographic disruptions have already happened that are already affecting employee well-being and productivity. First, a generation of peak wage-earners is sandwiched between caring for their kids and their parents. And, second, more and more people are living alone, which presents its own unique set of challenges.

Let's start with the "sandwich generation," which is an endearing way of saying the "under-attack-from-all-sides generation." These people, usually between age 40 and 60, find themselves caring for elderly parents and raising kids at the same time. (And "kids" in this case includes 20-somethings living at home, thanks to the feeble state of the economy). Members of the sandwich generation are at the peak of their earning power and value to employers, but the time and energy they spend caring for others take a serious toll on their health and their work. A study based upon the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showed that one in four American families spends nearly 21 hours per week providing care to an older adult. Moreover, the Gallup-Healthways data show that employed caregivers report higher levels of fatigue, depression and even pain than non-caregivers.

Caring costs employers too. Another study conducted by Johns Hopkins found that caring for older parents takes an 18.5 percent bite out of productivity. Add the needs of kids into that equation and you've got yourself a seriously stressed and challenged worker.

Even as some find themselves the raw meat of a kid-and-parent sandwich, many others make do without the benefits of family life. As a result of those waiting longer to marry as well as the increasing prevalence of divorce, one-person households are becoming increasingly common. Today almost 33 million people live alone in the United States, accounting for a third of all U.S. households (See CBS News).

Once again, the result is distracted workers, because living alone can be difficult, expensive work – especially as we age. In a household of one, chores all fall on one set of shoulders, as does health management, retirement planning and savings. To make matters worse, those who live alone don't have anyone to help them with those tasks that can only be accomplished during working hours – anything from banking to insurance to auto work to opening the front door for the cable guy who claims he will be there between 2 and…. And any employer who assumes that employees aren't already dealing with at least some of these tasks from their desks during the workday is surely delusional.

So what can an employer do to help employees who find themselves providing caring for nearly everyone but themselves, and others who are running a household of one? (Or, in perhaps the toughest scenario, a person living alone who cares for an elderly parent who lives elsewhere.)

  • Provide Flexibility: Take the "sandwiched" employee who needs to take her parent to a weekly doctor's appointment. Providing the option to work a 40 hour week in four days instead of five can reduce absenteeism and even the presenteeism that comes with the guilt of not accompanying mom to the doctor. And for employees living alone, a telecommuting option, or a more free-form workweek, will let them get their work done as well as their chores and errands.
  • Provide Useful Information: While caregiving is not new, managing the demands of caring is increasingly complex work. The baby boomers, consummate researchers, are not necessarily looking for a hand, but the knowledge of how to care for an elderly loved one without the benefits of an extended family that many enjoyed decades ago. Those going it alone,might benefit from trusted service providers that can help manage and maintain a home, finances and all the other things that go into living independently. Providing trusted information resources and vetted service providers can make life easier for the employee and improve productivity for the employer.
  • Provide Social Support: On average we spend more waking hours with our work colleagues than with family or friends. Caregiving and the challenges of living alone have always been personal issues dealt with quietly. The baby boomers have done very few things quietly. Caregivers and employees in households-of-one will actively seek the advice, validation and comfort of others that are experiencing similar challenges. Employers might find that providing seminars or simply lunches on topics that address the ‘life’ in work/life balance will improve employee tenure and the stress of being caught in the middle.
  • MIT AgeLab's Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.

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