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OP-ED: Businesses should take extra steps to support working caregivers during this challenging time

Vanessa Laughlin

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, interact with family and friends, and care for others. As business owners continue to make adjustments, it is important that they take steps to make sure that working caregivers have the support they need.

The number of working caregivers in the U.S. is growing. AARP’s 2020 report on caregiving found that more than one in five Americans, 21.3 percent or 53 million, are caregivers, up from an estimated 43.5 million caregivers in 2015.

I joined the ranks of America’s caregivers in 2013 when my first child was born prematurely, and then the stakes became higher in 2015.  I was 15 years into a successful career in management consulting in Seattle with a toddler and husband when my father-in-law was diagnosed with advanced bile duct cancer. He was a wonderful man who paid it forward in his community in so many ways, going back to school in his 50s to get his degree in social work, which he used to provide free therapy to underserved communities in the Puget Sound region.

Once he was diagnosed, our family went to work to support and celebrate him during the remaining time he had. This included helping navigate his cancer care and assist with day-to-day responsibilities, including buying groceries, sharing meals, and taking care of the home.  At the same time, I became pregnant and my unborn child was diagnosed with a rare birth defect that required immediate kidney surgery just 10 weeks after he was born. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.

My father-in-law passed away 18 months after he was diagnosed with cancer from a rapidly spreading bacterial infection that his body was too weak from given the cancer treatments he had been receiving. As my husband and I struggled with our grief and our children coped with the loss of their “Pop-pop,” I realized there had to be a better path for families like mine. I left my career in management consulting to start my own lifespan navigation firm to support caregivers through every stage or potential crisis, and to plan ahead to prevent issues whenever possible.

As time goes one, our team continues to learn that there are many ways businesses of all sizes can support their working caregivers.

Acknowledge the Caregiving Reality: The first step is to acknowledge the challenges caregivers face as they juggle work responsibilities with their personal lives. For example, before the pandemic, some employees were working from home if able to do so. Today, many of these same workers and all of their colleagues are now ‘living from work’, but without the benefit of open schools, babysitters, neighbors, in-home aides, or other forms of support for their dependent family members. Employees are also spending time and energy to remain discrete to not appear to be letting anyone down. Setting the tone as a leader also means being open about your own caregiving struggles, present or past, to validate and normalize these types of perspectives within company culture.

Apply an Empathetic Lens: Next comes empathy and looking past bottom lines.  It is up to leaders to find ways to reasonably adapt to meet the needs of their working caregivers. Being able to effectively understand what one might be experiencing will be critical when exploring how to prioritize, choose, and then rollout tactics that still align with the organization’s overall strategy.

Offer Employees Flexibility to do Their Best Work: The final step comes in planning and implementing meaningfully effective policies to help employees manage both their work and caregiving responsibilities. This could be creating greater flexibility in scheduling activities with teams and external partners, streamlining how meetings are conducted, cross training all employees to cover unexpected absences across each team, or taking a hard look at priorities and asking the question ‘How much does this really matter, right now?’. Through all of this, clear communication between leaders and employees who may be acutely dealing with a personal caregiving crisis is crucial to avoid impacts to the business and the potential for sudden departures.

Leaders have an outsized opportunity to adapt their businesses to meet the needs of millions of Americans who are facing a personal caregiving crisis. If they seize this moment, they will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with workforces that have higher morale, greater productivity, stronger company cultures, and improved quality of life.

Vanessa Laughlin is the principal and founder of Banister Advisors, an employee benefits provider that offers Lifespan Navigation™ services covering health crisis, complex eldercare, end-of-life, bereavement, and estate settlement services.