Aging parents and employee wellness

With a growing percentage of the workforce finding themselves part of the “sandwich generation” (caring for both children and elderly parents) it’s not surprising that the 2012 National Study on Work, Life and Caregiving recommends that employers consider creating formal eldercare policies and/or allowing employees to take advantage of practices such as flexible work arrangements, compressed workweeks, and compassionate care leave. The study surveyed 25,021 employees, most of whom were managers or professionals working for companies with more than 500 employees. It found that 72% of the people surveyed were responsible for at least one elderly dependent and 31% of respondents said they were responsible for three!

An increasing trend

With Canadians often waiting until their thirties to have children and increased life expectancy, it’s likely that the number of employees who are faced with the challenge of balancing the demands of work while sandwiched between the demands of childcare and eldercare is likely to increase significantly over the next decade. As a result, the survey suggests, that employers will need to give more tangible attention to work-life issues in order to remain competitive.

Among the employees providing elder care, almost all said that they provided emotional support as well as practical support such as running errands and providing transportation. Over 60% said they helped their elderly dependents with household chores and maintenance while 33% also helped with personal care and nursing, including feeding and giving medications. With one in five of the people surveyed saying that they felt overwhelmed by the caregiver experience, it’s not surprising that many of them also reported increased absences from work, a reduction in their productivity levels and an increased uptake of the employee health benefits offered through their workplace plans.

The importance of organizational culture

An organization’s culture is built on the unwritten rules; the corporate norms that dictate how things are done, how things work and what is valued in the organization. In an organization where employees feel that the employer rewards people who make work a priority over family and who do a good job of keeping their work and family lives separate, it’s more likely that someone balancing the demands of work with the demands of caring for elderly dependents will feel overwhelmed compared to an employee working in an organization which encourages (and facilitates) work-life balance.

The study found that employees who felt they had flexibility in regards to work hours and work location were less likely to feel overloaded than employees who reported very little flexibility. Not surprisingly, employees who had the ability to vary their work start and end times and to rearrange their work schedule to deal with family demands or personal appointments seemed better able to cope with the stress associated with the demands of their personal/family life than employees who felt they had little control.

What can employers do?

Two key factors in an employee’s ability to cope with managing a higher workload while juggling multiple roles are how flexible they perceive an organization to be and how supportive they perceive management to be. Comparing the findings of the 2012 study with the findings of the previous one (2001), we can see that over the past few years, work demands and absenteeism have increased while time flexibility and employee mental health has decreased. In order to reverse these trends, organizations need to foster a workplace culture which values work-life balance; offers flexibility in hours and location so that employees can more easily juggle multiple roles; and ensure that all staff (especially those in management roles) are supportive of the organization’s work and family policies.

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