Many of today’s full-time workers are taking on an additional role.
That is the role of informal caregiver for a spouse, parent, child, sibling or friend
Many caregivers can’t afford to put their careers on hold — they’re supporting a family, trying to plan for their own futures and often providing financial support for their care receiver. Juggling the expectations and responsibilities of both caregiving and full time employment can be a difficult balance.
Monthly budgets aren’t the only concern. Caregivers in the workforce are more likely to cut back their hours, miss work days and see their productivity suffer. They may miss out on opportunities for overtime and advancement, and the ones who do take time off can lose out on pension benefits too.
Then there’s the emotional toll: Studies have shown that while many caregivers experience strain and burn-out, the ones who are in the workforce feel the effects more keenly. There never seems to be enough hours in the week to get everything done, and many caregivers cope with often conflicting expectations.
“I was torn,” says Rick Lauber, author of Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians.
I felt obligated to my employer and to my parents. I didn’t want to let either of them down.
Along with his two sisters, Lauber provided care and support to his parents, both of whom were coping with serious medical issues.
Everyone’s situation is a different, but we enlisted Lauber’s expertise in finding some strategies to help.
Start a conversation with your employer
Employers don’t like surprises, so it’s important to open up the lines of communication as soon as possible — before you become overwhelmed or a crisis hits. In this initial meeting, you can let your employer know how committed you are to your work and find out what options or supports are available.
“Talk to your supervisor or HR department sooner rather than later,” says Lauber. “Explain to them what’s happening and that you may need to take some personal time.”
Many workplaces are equipped to handle parenting responsibilities and emergencies, but Lauber notes caregivers are still faced with helping employers understand their situation. It’s important to maintain good communication — especially as your responsibilities change — and find ways to work together.
Consider creative work options
Before you meet with your employer, put your problem-solving skill to work so you can present some possible solutions. Consider, for example:
Flex-time hours. Your “office hours” don’t necessarily have to be 9-5, says Lauber. Ask if you can you work evenings or weekends to make up for time missed taking a care receiver to appointments, for instance.
Working from home. Depending on the nature of your work, your employer might consider letting you work remotely part of the time. (Be aware, however, that working from home has its own challenges, and some workers find it harder to maintain a work/life balance.)
Job-sharing. If you want to cut back your hours while keeping your position, ask if your company would be willing to hire a temporary worker to fill in.
“You shouldn’t feel you have to leave your job because of your caregiving responsibilities,” says Lauber. “Ultimately, it’s in employers’ best interests to retain experienced and trusted staff.”
Good record keeping is as important as good communication. Lauber advises to keep a “paper trail” of what was discussed and what steps are being taken. Keep a copy of any emails or paperwork regarding your caregiving responsibilities and your job.
What about phone calls and face-to-face conversations? Lauber notes it’s important to keep a record of any verbal agreements too. It isn’t always easy to remember what was said, and managers can come and go over the course of your caregiving responsibilities.
“After a phone call or meeting, follow up right away with an email,” Lauber suggests. “You can start by saying ‘Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Based on our conversation, I understand that…’ This way you can confirm what was said and you both have a record.”
Set limits and priorities
It’s all too easy for your roles to overlap, warns Lauber. Phone calls and running errands can interrupt your workday, and work can intrude on time spent with your loved ones. Experts generally advise to try to give your current task your full attention: focus on work when you are working, focus on your care receiver when you spend time with him or her — and focus on yourself and your family during your down time.
“You have to know your limits and maintain separation,” Lauber says.
Sometimes you have to know when to step back.
For example, you might limit running errands or taking personal phone calls to your lunch break at work, or make room in your budget for paid care so you can make your income a priority.
Find support in your community
Unfortunately, it’s easy for caregivers to take on too much — and their jobs can suffer from a lack of concentration or burnout. Sleepless nights, exhausting days and too little time to take care of yourself can take a toll.
“The human body can only take so much for so long,” notes Lauber, who recalls many workdays wondering if the phone would ring and he would have to rush out.
Lauber recommends finding services and support in your community to help take care of both you and your care receiver. Respite care, day programs and companionship or visiting services can all take some of the pressure off.
“One thing I did was find a day program for my father,” says Lauber. “I could concentrate more at work on those days because I knew my father was safe and being cared for by professionals.”
Many communities and non-profit organizations offer free or low-cost services to help those needing care — it’s worth researching what’s available in your area. In addition, there are many good supports such as websites and online communities that offer valuable tips and information.
Take advantage of financial support if needed
Neither the government nor employers offer much in the way of financial support, but there are two services caregivers should know about:
– Employment Insurance Compassionate Care Benefits. If a family member is critically ill and likely to die within the next 26 months, Employment Insurance will pay up to six weeks of benefits for people needing to take time off. (Note that this benefit is shared among family members if more than one person wants to take time off.)
– Caregiver tax credit. If you or your spouse are caring for a dependent in your home and meet certain criteria, you may be eligible for up to $300 back on your tax refund per family.
While the amounts seem meager and eligibility criteria are pretty strict, these initiatives can offer a little cash for people who qualify.
Take care of yourself too
Surveys repeatedly show that many caregivers feel they aren’t doing enough, but experts continue to warn that they need to take care of their own needs too. In addition to increased stress, many caregivers can become isolated from friends, family and even coworkers.
Like other experts, Lauber notes that caregivers have to look after themselves too. It’s okay to want time with your friends and family and to pursue activities outside of work and caregiving. It’s okay to accept help and seek support from friends, family, a spiritual leader and fellow caregivers. Eat well, exercise, meditate or have a long chat with friends over a glass of wine — do whatever helps you relieve stress. By looking after ourselves, we can better look after others. (For more ideas, see these tips for managing caregiver stress.)
Overall, most caregivers report their role is a rewarding experience that brings them closer to the people for whom they care. Companies and policymakers are only beginning to respond to the challenges that caregivers face. Hopefully, we’ll see more changes and more support in the future — but for now the onus is on employers and employees to find a way to work together
ON THE WEB
For more information, visit caregiversguideforcanadians.com and read some of Lauber’s articles on 50PLUS.com.
Additional Sources: AARP, Canadian Caregivers Coalition, The Caregiver Resource Centre, Statistics Canada, University of Alberta Hidden Costs/Invisible Contributions project, and University of Florida IFAS Extension
“Reprinted with permission from everythingzoomer.com, the lifestyle site for people 45+.