Working adults who find themselves caring for aging parents will likely face heightened workplace stress. Research has found that these employees often don’t have access to options that would allow them the flexibility to do their jobs and provide care for their aging relatives. As a result, they report feeling as though their job security is diminished or compromised. Worse still, juggling responsibilities of caregiving and work further puts their emotional health at risk and increases the likelihood for developing chronic illnesses.
According to a recent survey by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, approximately 34 million Americans have served as unpaid caregivers to someone aged 50 or older. The average age of the older adults needing care is 75 years old. While 60 percent of these caregivers are gainfully employed, many say they must frequently: arrive late for work; leave the workplace early; need time off from work; need a full leave of absence; or are forced to give up work entirely to accommodate the needs of the person they are caring for.
As already noted, full-time workers performing alternate duties as caregivers sometimes suffer through symptoms of poor physical health. These include relatively higher levels of depression, heart disease, hypertension, stress, and other medical conditions—compared to individuals without such caregiving responsibilities.
On the employers’ end, they must struggle with their bottom lines; roughly eight percent more is spent on healthcare for their caregiving workers. Measured in the aggregate, these extra healthcare expenses cost US employers an additional $13.4 billion per year. This aggregate cost rises to $28 billion when part-time workers are included in the calculations. Further, US businesses annually lose more than $25 billion in lost productivity because of their full-time, caregiving workers.
A troubling dichotomy arises when employers—desperate to control the extra cost associated with workers who have caregiving responsibilities—proceed to drain their workforce of their more seasoned and knowledgeable employees, through mistreatment, discrimination, and termination.
Actions like these have collectively come to be known as Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD). Caregivers periodically need and request time off to take care of aging parents, and claims of FRD have included both denial of leave and retaliation when leave is taken. Bias can also occur when workers, burdened with eldercare responsibilities, are criticized or disciplined by their employers for taking personal days, while non-caregiving employees are not. Other job requirements may be applied unequally to caregivers, such as when they are asked to make up missed hours, when non-caregivers are not required to do so. Behavior like this can be risky for employers, however. In one case, a jury awarded an employee, who had made an FRD claim, $11.65 million to settle a wrongful termination.
In response to these dilemmas and concerns, a growing number of employers (mostly larger corporations) have initiated ways to counter this cyclical and destructive trend by offering eldercare programs (typically in the form of Employee Assistance Programs or EAPs). These programs provide information and referrals to quality resources in their local communities. Additional solutions include paid time off, telecommuting, and the introduction of more flexible work schedules. Due to the higher levels of illness experienced by caregivers, a few employers have even begun to incorporate caregiving programs directly into their existing employee wellness or well-being programs.
While the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has, in theory, protected caregivers from illegal bias in the workplace, employers frequently enforce FMLA inconsistently and/or incorrectly. Furthermore, FMLA is mandated for companies that employ a minimum of 50 workers. Employees that work for small or medium-sized organizations are, therefore, not automatically protected by FMLA.
In no way should these facts imply that all employers hold biases against their caregiving employees. Indeed, evidence shows that frank and honest discussions, between an employee and employer, can often go a long way toward easing tensions by reaching accommodations that are reasonable and mutually beneficial. To make the most of these conversations, however, it is critical for employees to understand their rights as they pertain to current labor laws and regulations.