The Bottom Line: How Working While Caring Impacts our Nation’s Economy

We’ve heard about “the great resignation” or “the great reassessment.” Across industry sectors, business size and occupational categories—from frontline nurses to senior management—public and private sectors are experiencing workforce challenges that impact their bottom line, resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. They are struggling to find employees as they fight to keep the ones they have.

To bridge this employment gap, it’s important to seek insight into contributing factors to the current economic situation. Despite the unprecedented view of family life the pandemic exposed, employers remain largely unaware of the prevalence of caregivers in their workforces, the challenges they experience and the differences between caring for a child and caring for someone who is ill, aging or disabled.

In recent findings from the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers (RCI), two national surveys revealed that one in five full-time workers is providing care on a regular basis to someone in this latter category and two in ten full-time employees said they had to quit their jobs to continue to care for a loved one. With the nation’s rising older adult population, those ratios are certain to increase. This presents an opportunity to focus employers on their role in developing effective supports for their workforce and deepening their understanding of the gaps and weaknesses in the broader structural context of care.

Caregiving is a multifaceted and varied experience and a one-size-fits-all approach falls short.

This research is the first component of RCI’s “Working While Caring” initiative, which is designed to better describe and understand what is happening at the intersection of caregiving and employment, with the goal of expanding effective employer supports and reforming public policies. Caregiving is a multifaceted and varied experience and there are substantial differences across workplaces and workforces, therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach falls short. It’s why RCI is partnering with employers to pilot and evaluate a range of benefits that could aid full-time employees in distinct industry sectors who are caring for a loved one at home.

Steps Employers Can Take to Help Family Caregivers

While the private sector can do more to recognize and support their employee caregivers, they cannot solve all the challenges stemming from the fragmented and expensive long-term care system in the U.S.

They can, however, be an influential voice in advancing structural public policy reforms that move caregiver concerns from the margins to the center, resulting in a healthier, more engaged and more productive workforce.

RCI’s recent data provides employers with a window into the challenges their employees may face and steps they can take to increase workplace engagement and productivity. Findings include:

  • Forty-four percent of family caregivers who are employed full-time report that at some time during their caregiving trajectory they had to change their employment status to part-time due to caregiving responsibilities.
  • Eighty-two percent of full-time employees who are providing care are the primary caregivers for their loved ones.
  • Thirty-seven percent of family caregivers who are employed full-time had no additional help providing care from a family member, home health aide or friend.
  • The most significant challenge for those who are employed full-time is the emotional stress of working and providing care.
  • Of the 10 employer benefits we asked about (from unpaid leave to specialized caregiver services), 65 percent of employed family caregivers report having access to less than half of these benefits.
  • Hourly workers with less education are more likely to leave a job to care for a family member than salaried workers with more education.

What can employers do? A significant percentage of the workforce, including people of color and hourly workers, do not have access to the same suite of benefits as salaried employees. When offered, the benefits found most helpful include flexible scheduling, remote work, reduction to part-time status, job-sharing and specialized caregiver services. RCI also found that only four in 10 family caregivers who are employed full-time report having access to paid leave or mental health coverage.

Importantly, employee caregivers who accessed their benefits reported that caregiving had a less negative affect on key aspects of their life. This can result in real value for employers through enhanced engagement and reduced absenteeism. Somewhat surprisingly, approximately three out of four employed caregivers said that they would be willing to disclose to their supervisor that they are a caregiver as a requirement to qualify for benefits. However, managers need more training and investment in learning how to support employee caregivers and they need to be able to back this up with real solutions, including benefits and other accommodations.

Another way in which employers can become better informed is adding a caregiving module to ongoing employee surveys. Questions on caregiving can also be included as part of the open enrollment process that uses available standardized metrics to enable data sharing and comparison. Employers should inquire whether employee caregivers have access to quality and affordable home- and community-based services.

‘Employee caregivers who accessed their benefits reported that caregiving had a less negative affect on key aspects of their life.’

Additionally, in both surveys, RCI found that registered voters and employed family caregivers are in favor of public policies that provide financial help, emotional support and greater flexibility to family caregivers. Specifically, they would like to see tax credits, tax-free savings accounts, mental health coverage and paid leave, among other policies, to help those caring for others while working. However, there is stronger support for these policies among family caregivers when compared to voters who may not have first-hand knowledge of caregiving responsibilities, suggesting that the experience of caregiving exposes the gaps in supports.

As we look to reform supports for employee caregivers, it’s important to remember the sage statement from RCI’s founder and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter: “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need them.”

RCI is sharing its research with employers and policymakers in the coming months to help inform future policies and initiatives that support our critical workforce so they can continue to work while caring for their loved ones.

Karen Kavanaugh, MSW, is senior director, Strategic Initiatives, for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, in Washington, DC.