Illustration by Andrew Colin Beck 

Caring for caregivers has become the new frontier in workplace management. Statistics reveal a massive and growing challenge worldwide for employees who must juggle their jobs with caring for elderly parents; a life partner with a health condition; or a disabled child, sibling, or close friend.

In the United States, 60 percent of the country’s estimated 65 million caregivers were employed at some point in the past year while also giving care. That is one in every six workers.

What’s more, as people live longer, populations age around the world, and welfare support faces financial challenges, countries will face shortages of paid caregivers, and the demand for people voluntarily caring for one another, particularly during working life, will grow. In 2010, there were more than seven potential family caregivers for every person age 80 or older in the United States. By 2030, that ratio will fall to four to one, as baby boomers reach the last stage of life. At the same time, the country will face a shortage of 150,000 care workers.

In my own country, the United Kingdom, one in every nine employees (3 million people) is juggling a job and caring for a loved one. That figure will grow inexorably: The country’s 6.5 million carers are projected to increase to 9 million over the next two decades.

For many of us, caring for a dependent will be the most important thing we do in life. Caregiving, however, can be stressful and have negative impacts on physical and mental health, social life, and family finances. The challenges of juggling jobs and caregiving can become so extreme that significant numbers of carers may be forced to give up work. UK market research carried out by YouGov suggests that more than two million citizens have given up work at some point to care for loved ones and three million have reduced working hours. This exacts a cost on them as well as on their employers, who may lose highly experienced and valuable employees in the process.

The era of employers who ignore an employee’s care commitments should be over. Smart and responsible employers understand the business as well as moral case for enabling employees with caring responsibilities to balance work and care.

A Personal Mission

I have experienced the pressures of juggling work and caring firsthand. I looked after my elderly parents in their final years while working as a business professor and campaigner. Caring for my mum in her later years, after my father died, and ensuring that she could stay safely and happily in her own home was the most important thing I have done in my life.

Nevertheless, I still struggled as a carer. My physical fitness routine was gradually abandoned. I progressively stopped accepting invitations to functions that were not immediately necessary for my work. Socializing declined.

As a result of my experience, I am now on a personal mission to encourage employers around the world to understand that some of their employees are inevitably working caregivers, and many more will become so during the course of their working lives. In addition, ex-caregivers can be a valuable source of new recruits, returning to the workplace after an extended period of full-time care.

I am chairman of the board of trustees for Carers UK, a British nonprofit that seeks to promote a society that respects, values, and supports caregivers. One of our programs is an employer-led network that collaborates on how best to help their working carers. In Scotland, we also run a carer-friendly workplace-accreditation scheme on behalf of the Scottish government called Carer Positive, which assesses employers in terms of how they value and support their working carers. I want to see more initiatives around the world that encourage and help employers to become great employers for their working carers. Where might such initiatives come from?

Start with some of the other carers’ organizations. Carers UK is part of an international network of carer organizations across the world called the International Alliance of Carer Organizations (IACO). IACO serves as an umbrella organization that provides cohesive direction, facilitates information sharing, and advocates for carers worldwide.

Another source might be some of the corporate responsibility coalitions promoting responsible business practices that exist in most of the world’s largest economies. In the United Kingdom, Business in the Community, a coalition of several hundred major businesses dedicated to responsible business, has conducted workplace campaigns around gender and race for more than 20 years. Over the last two years, it started to examine employee-carer policies through its existing work on demographic change and help employers to prepare for an aging workforce.

Ma’ala—Israel’s leading nonprofit dedicated to corporate responsibility—has incorporated performance on work and caring into its existing Ma’ala Index, which ranks Israeli companies based on corporate responsibility criteria. Like Business in the Community, Ma’ala is looking at how workplaces friendly to older workers can also be carer-friendly workplaces, and vice versa. Ma’ala has recognized the growing importance of caring and aging as part of what it means to be an inclusive and responsible employer. It has also secured two years of funding from the Israeli government to research the topic of “aging well,” review international practices, and develop a policy agenda for Israeli employers.

Yet another model is a consortium-based approach with a number of sponsoring organizations, including both business lobby groups and carer organizations. New Zealand’s Employment for Caring leadership group, for example, is a multi-stakeholder initiative whose members include Carers New Zealand, Business New Zealand, the Council of Trade Unions, Bupa, the Ministry of Social Development, Work and Income, and the Department of Labour. The group is raising awareness about working and caring, and sharing good practice.

These pioneers demonstrate that more can be accomplished if companies, business leaders, and employment-related organizations collaborate and build coalitions to help working caregivers. This will be particularly relevant if a business lobby or coalition has—or is planning—a campaign with member companies around skills, retaining older workers, health and well-being in the workplace, or addressing demographic changes by managing a multigenerational workforce.

Concrete Steps

Companies that treat their working carers right take concrete steps. They identify their employee carers, and they offer flexible hours, paid or unpaid carer leave, and home-working opportunities. They support internal networks of employee carers; provide access to advice and information; and continuously learn and improve their workplaces through exchanges with other employers as well as regular feedback from employees. The very best employers help excarers to return to work and use their influence to help shape public policies and programs to value, respect, and support carers.

How do we get employers to take these steps? First, it is important to engage the top leadership of employer members. There needs to be C-suite champions as well as operations-level “sherpas” and implementers. There should be a capable secretariat with the capacity to fashion and deliver an effective work program; the personal presence and skills to engage employers at both senior and operational levels; and the skill and determination to work with leading members on innovation and tackling difficult-to-solve issues, so that there is a hard business case for leading employers to remain involved.

Second, there needs to be public outreach. This involves developing both hard data and compelling personal stories of individual employee carers and good employers of carers that will inspire and engage other employers as well as the media. We should establish vehicles such as a benchmarking index or annual awards for organizational excellence in caring for working carers, stimulate continuous improvement and healthy competition, and also provide an ongoing, sustainable source of new marketplace insights and topics for further research and development.

Third, we need to mobilize strategically. A good starting point is to recruit a business leader who can champion the initiative with his or her peers. They will need a compelling “ask”—an agenda for action—to pitch. The first recruits are always the hardest to obtain. It helps if these early adopters are wellrespected, successful organizations that others will want to listen to and team up with.

An initial core group of employers might be recruited to this effort from organizations that have already demonstrated their commitment to other aspects of being a responsible employer. These might be identified from several sources, including (1) organizations included in Great Place to Work or best employers rankings; (2) businesses with a positive reputation for corporate responsibility, such as Dow Jones Sustainability Index sectoral leaders, Corporate Knights index of the Global 100 most sustainable corporations in the world, or local corporate responsibility benchmarks; (3) organizations with CEOs appearing on most-admired-companies listings; and (4) organizations with HR and recruitment directors highly ranked by their peers. The initial group of early adopters can then help to recruit the second wave from among their major business customers and suppliers, personal contacts, and industry partners.

Once there is a critical mass of employers, ready and willing to share their experiences, learn from each other, and encourage others, it becomes easier to host networking events, produce good practice guides, and start raising the bar of performance.

“There are only four kinds of people in the world,” says former first lady of the United States Rosalynn Carter, a great champion of caregivers. “Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” It is time for employers to incorporate this truth in their workplaces and to become great employers for working carers. Social innovators can help make this a reality by championing the establishment of support networks for employers.

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