Caregiving: Help employees to succeed in their dual roles
As we herald in a new year with a COVID-19 vaccine, our hope is a return to a life we once knew of being the social animals we’re meant to be. For healthcare, 2021 poses the hope to refocus on issues that will continue to remain of utmost importance to the health and wellbeing of Americans in a post-pandemic world.
One of those issues is the effect caregiving has on employees, specifically caregiving for older and/or sick family members and special needs children. Already a significant problem, it promises to become even more important as Baby Boomers continue to age.
On Dec. 17, 2020, Beacon Health Options hosted a webinar, Employer dilemma: Helping employees juggle work and caregiving, which featured three panelists: Melissa Topp, Director of Care Management at Providence Health Plan; Jennie Byrne, MD, Chief Behavioral Health Officer for CareMore; and Lynn Loechli, a North America Total Reward Consultant at Kellogg Company. Mike Usman, MD, a Beacon Medical Director, was the moderator.
A two-sided problem
Caregivers feel the pressure of an ongoing responsibility, affecting their role as employees. Consider the following from the American Association of Retired Persons:
- One in six employees spends an average of more than 20 hours a week providing help to a loved one.
- Nearly half (49 percent) of caregiver employees are often late to work, leave early or take time off because of their caregiving responsibilities.
Employers pay a price as well, according to a Northeast Business Group on Health report.
- Elder care alone results in approximately $5 billion in absenteeism annually.
- Caregivers miss on average six to seven days of work due to caregiving.
- Caregivers cost employers an estimated 8 percent more – or $13.4 billion annually – in healthcare costs than non-caregivers as their responsibilities are exhausting and emotionally draining.
Tips to help employees
Caregiving is more than an emotional and financial cost to caregivers; it can affect employers’ bottom lines as well. Melissa Topp of Providence Health Plan reports that caregivers cost more from a healthcare perspective; her organization sees increased service utilization, both inpatient and outpatient. Recognizing this very real problem, below are approaches that these three organizations and their employees have found to be helpful in dealing with the caregiving dilemma.
Conduct surveys to understand the needs
It’s hard to address needs without understanding its breadth and depth. Conducting surveys helps to do so, providing concrete, actionable information. For example, Loechli surveyed both the managers and employees of one department to ensure that they were aligned – that the managers did, in fact, understand their employees competing priorities and what they need. Her organization also conducted a global opinion survey, drilling down into each department, to ensure that the organization was heading in the right direction in supporting employees, especially during the pandemic. However, Loechli warns that surveys should be conducted regularly as needs change quickly in a changing world.
Promote culture and mission
Before you can be successful at addressing any problem, its solution has to be part of an organization’s culture and mission, says CareMore’s Byrne. First, leadership commitment to that culture is essential. Secondly, organizations need to be proactive. For example, CareMore has established an Academy, which helps to educate staff about various issues. Specific to caregiving during a pandemic, one topic covered was crisis and its different stages and how people react. Another topic included empathy fatigue and the difficulty of remaining empathetic when caregiving coworkers don’t show up on time or not at all.
Flexibility offers possibility. Employees will need different solutions, depending upon their circumstances. “Managers need to recognize that need and work with each employee on an individual basis as well as a member of a team,” says Loechli, adding that managers need to check in on their employees regularly.
Flexibility also has many faces. For hourly employees who need to take time off during the day, it can mean making up those hours at some other time. For exempt employees, flexibility may mean making up that work on their own schedule, says Topp.
For starters, managers should not make assumptions, says Topp. Ask questions and listen to answers first. Let employees say in their own words what their challenges are and what they need. Further, communication must come from the top down; senior leaders need to communicate the organization’s position and cascade it through the management structure. Conversely, managers need to escalate employee issues to their managers when necessary.
Don’t just talk about it; do it, especially as it relates to culture. Topp says she has had to get more intentional about it herself. For example, managers need to be specific about prioritizing employee tasks. Separate the critical from the “nice to have”. Managers can help their teams to better leverage individual strengths to get the “critical” tasks done. CareMore’s Academy, referenced above, is one way that organization got intentional.
Conduct manager training
Talking to stressed employees is its own form of stress, and most managers need training on how to do it. They need to learn to be good listeners, says Byrne. Her organization has provided managers with concrete phases and tactics to help them “open a space” for the employee to talk without forcing it. For example, a manager might call and say, “I just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.” Most likely, silence will ensue, but she recommends not breaking it. Let there be pauses because “sometimes that silence is when the person actually feels like they can open up a bit.” It’s uncomfortable to do, she acknowledges, but critical to listening and understanding. Loechli adds that her organization has had success with Mental Health First Aid training – offered to managers as well as employees.
The caregiving dilemma for employers is manageable as these tips suggest. For more information, click here to access an audio of Beacon’s webinar.