There are more than 53 million caregivers in the United States – and from the legislation at the federal and local levels, they are emerging as the new protected class of workers.
And it’s about time. For decades, caregivers have been neglected in the workplace. Millions have found themselves ineligible for protection under federal law and have faced discrimination in the workplace. The caregiver crisis, however, has been amplified in many ways by COVID-19, which has wreaked havoc on households. Even those not directly impacted by the virus have had to get creative about child and elder care.
New legislation, however, gives caregivers hope – and puts employers firmly in the eye of the storm. Legislation such as The Protecting Family Caregivers from Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers who are caregivers, and President Biden’s caregiving plan, which is wrapped into the infrastructure legislation that recently was passed through the Senate, represent a seismic change for your business.
Some companies have already prioritized caregivers with new benefits and offerings that go above and beyond the existing protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), whether it be flex time, paid leave, or access to caregiver information and specialists. Employers are feeling increasing pressure by employees to add more flexibility to their policies, as Covid-19 shined a light for a much greater proportion of the workforce as to when they can and can’t take time off.
This is putting businesses in a difficult position. On the one hand, they want to be champions for their workforce. On the other, with more than 50 million caregivers nationwide and no federal or state limitations on the number of individuals an employee can take leave to care for in a year, this kind of flexibility can have a significant impact on the bottom line. It’s a lose-lose scenario for many employers.
Shifting to a culture of caring doesn’t mean sacrificing the bottom line. Like anything new you’re introducing to the business, it takes building muscle memory organizationally for your leaders and employers to get behind.
End the Stigma Associated With Asking for Help
People are creatures of habit and nowhere is that more evident than in the workforce. For generations, people have been taught to not express weakness in the workplace for fear of not advancing in the organization or, worse, losing their jobs.
But times are changing. Savvy businesses are leading with greater empathy, where strategies around diversity, equity, and inclusion have become a priority. However, one glaring absence in many cases has been caregivers, who need flexibility to deal with the day-to-day responsibilities of being a caregiver. As new legislation gets introduced, businesses have an opportunity to not only adhere to it but enhance it by offering greater protections to caregivers.
Caregivers are drowning in their responsibilities. By acknowledging it in your corporate communications, programs, and other initiatives, and proactively attacking the challenges your employee caregivers face, you’ll not only inspire loyalty but you’ll regain productivity from this group that will finally have some guardrails in the workplace to help them better manage in and out of it.
Put Benefits in Place that Support Caregivers – and Lessen the Need for Them to Leave
What does this look like? Start by encouraging dialogue – and then be open to what you’ll hear. What responsibilities do your caregivers have at home? What does success in the workplace – and at home – look like for them? Build strategies around those needs. Do you need to flex work hours because an employee’s mornings are tied up driving a loved one to school or medical appointments? Do it. Do you need to provide extra days off, even if they are for nothing more than allowing your caregivers to decompress from the wear and tear of life? Do it.
Listening will be core to your success. Everyone’s situation is different, which can drive fear among employers because it means they need to address every caregiver situation. But, having an understanding of just what your organization needs enables you to provision the tools and strategies that help empower employee caregivers to help themselves, not just rely on you.
And get specific! Content is king: do your employees want a webinar on how to help their children with bullying? A podcast series that tackles the key decisions that need to be made to support aging relatives? A financial planning expert who holds office hours on will planning and other financial considerations for caregivers? Ultimately, you need to empower your caregivers to build the skills in order to be effective. Doing so, helps their preparation and breaks the vicious cycle of fighting fires and reacting only after crises have arisen.
More than one-third of workers are leaving the workforce because their employers don’t provide enough flexibility. Don’t make talent acquisition a bigger line item than it needs to be: put the programs in place now that encourage your top workers – who also happen to be caregivers – to stay.
The C-suite Needs to Invest in Caregivers
Once the processes and policies are in place, it’s up to your executives to set the tone. Many of the demands of caregiving take place during the “typical” work day. It’s when Mom’s doctor finally calls, or a teacher reaches out at last to discuss challenging behaviors at school. Your executives need to be bought in on why the company is prioritizing caregiving and understand that the broader philosophy around caregiving is a differentiator. Lack of executive sponsorship can be the death knell of even the most worthy corporate initiatives. Therefore, it is wise to find out who your caregiver champions are at the top of the corporate ladder.
Managers, too, play an important role in providing a consistent presence between the company and employee on how to assist the caregivers they support. Not only should managers be aware of the prevalence of nondisclosure of caregiving status, they should also know well the range of supports your company offers and when to use them. Offer professional development in these areas as well as in helping them understand and manage their own unconscious biases, e.g., how they feel about pregnant or nursing employees, people from different cultures, family leave, “proper” work habits, “what it takes” to get a job done, etc.
Stay Ahead of the Chaos
Change is coming and laws will soon be in place that ensure you treat caregivers with the same dignity and respect as any other vulnerable work group. You can embrace that now and start to implement change, or be behind the eight ball when legislation is finally passed. By getting ahead of it, you’ll inspire loyalty from your people, rather than having them search job sites for more forward thinking organizations that respect the rights of caregivers.
Done right, such a cultural shift will be uncomfortable – change management isn’t supposed to be easy, but don’t give up. You have the power as a people leader to drive change and create a culture of caring.
With a thoughtful strategy in place, you’ll witness an immediate impact that you can feel and see – it will be palpable. You will also be amazed by the benefits to both your employees and your company’s bottom line when you show just how much you and your company care.
Adam Goldberg is the CEO at Torchlight.