You could make the argument that my entire career and life experiences have prepared me for the roles I hold now, both personally and professionally. I’m a registered nurse by education, a daughter, a wife, a mom, and currently, for the second time in my life, a caregiver - this time for my aging dad.
Even though I have counseled countless others on this journey as a nurse and as a care manager for seniors and their families, I found myself overwhelmed, even with the help of supportive siblings. This year has brought on additional challenges to all these roles in my life — as I know is true for so many others.
Why the pandemic is impacting women even more
Being a mom has been and continues to be the greatest joy in my life. A mother’s work is never done, but my three kids are all grown and out of the house. I cannot imagine trying to juggle the responsibilities of being a mother, teacher, caregiver and employee right now.
At this point, we’re probably all familiar with the funny stories of kids walking in on Zoom meetings or, even better, your BBC interview. But let’s for a moment try to imagine what goes on behind the active camera and idyllic virtual backdrops. While we’ve learned to find humor in many situations and take them light-heartedly, the reality is this is not a sustainable module of productivity for a full-time working caregiver. Even if your kids’ school has decided to hold in-person classes as opposed to holding virtual classes or going to full homeschool, that presents its own set of challenges. One sneeze from your child might be enough to impact your entire week. A fever? Enough to keep you at their bedside for days worrying that it doesn’t present other symptoms. We can’t go to the doctor like we used to, much less the ER, which often means toughing it out at home and having the entire household self-quarantine just in case. And what about your parent, who just moved in with you due to fear of COVID in their assisted living facility, who just interrupted your Zoom meeting because they can’t remember if they took their medication today?
For those in the sandwich generation — those taking care of younger children and aging parents — the stress and worry of caring for an aging parent who might be socially isolated or at greater risk from the virus is tremendous. Nursing facilities have accounted for 46 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, and 80 percent of all deaths are among people aged 65 or older, according to McKnight’s Senior Living. That kind of worry is bound to prevent anyone from being fully focused on their job.
Some companies are stepping up, but few are taking the steps necessary to address these underlying causes of their employees’ stress and burnout. Even before the pandemic, one in four caregivers reported feeling that caregiving had directly made their health worse. Since the pandemic, family caregivers reported consistently more negative impacts of COVID-19 compared with those not providing care, with striking differences in terms of financial strain and mental health impacts. However, a survey conducted by Homethrive revealed that nearly 40% of respondents said that their supervisor is not aware of their caregiving responsibilities outside of work or weren't sure if their supervisor was aware.
How workplaces can address the silent struggle
Elder caregiving continues to be a silent struggle employees suffer through, and companies must step up to the challenge of offering these employees the same support they would receive with childcare. These employees who are juggling competing responsibilities are quickly running out of options. Unless their employer is offering generous leaves of absence (typically unpaid) and flexible work schedules, the reality is that current situations will be unsustainable.
The decision is a difficult one for an employee — do you make the switch to a part-time job that likely offers no benefits, scale down your hours which will likely result in a setback in your career, or leave the workforce all together? Not surprisingly, the burden of this decision will fall more heavily on women — with McKinsey research showing senior-level women are more likely than senior-level men to feel burned out and under pressure to work more. Additionally, according to McKinsey’s research, women are 1.5 times more likely than men at their level to consider downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19.
The consequences of this coming to fruition are alarming, both financially and culturally. Company profits and share performance are shown to be 50 percent higher when women are well-represented in leadership, according to another 2020 McKinsey report. Culturally, senior-level women have a very profound impact. It is more likely that they embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and champion racial and gender diversity, with more than 50 percent saying they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equality at work.
The good news is that the pandemic has brought greater awareness of the challenges working family caregivers face. This presents companies with an opportunity to build a more accommodating, understanding and empathetic workplace. We can work to both retain the employees who have been most affected by this crisis while creating a culture that allows working caregivers to maintain — and thrive — in all their roles.
If the prospect of leading with your heart isn’t convincing, the economics of it should be enough to persuade you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but resetting norms, adjusting policies and investing in innovative caregiving benefits programs to better support employees will yield better outcomes for all of us.