Employers across the country are primed to meet a new normal. And it may have taken the worst pandemic in a century to get them there.
In discussions I’ve had with employers nationwide, I’m encouraged how many are aware of the need for solutions that alleviate a stressed out workforce pulled in various directions by work and home life.
A myriad of questions loom. Will there be a return to conventional, pre-COVID office life and, if so, what will that look like? Are more flexible, COVID-related work-from-home options here to stay? Exactly how new will the new normal be?
The answers will significantly impact a broad swath of America’s workforce – but perhaps no subset will be more affected than employees who double as family caregivers to aging family members. This largely unheralded group counts over 40 million members, many struggling with work/life balance.
According to the Genworth Beyond Dollars survey, even before COVID, 53% of caregivers felt additional stress because of their caregiving responsibilities, and 50% reported having less time for spouses/partners, children and themselves. The fallout from COVID also has had a startling effect on family caregivers’ health.
According to the Genworth Caring in COVID-19 Consumer Sentiment Survey, caregivers were spending an average of nine hours a week on caregiving responsibilities, and more than 49% of respondents reported feeling more anxiety since the pandemic started. While many employees are enjoying shorter commutes, employee caregivers are filling that supposed downtime with increased caregiving responsibilities and all the attendant effort and stress that comes with it.
Even before the pandemic, this additional pressure on an employer’s workforce manifests in several ways: increased absenteeism; reduced productivity; loss of morale; increased turnover; and ultimately, a loss of institutional knowledge when some employees inevitably leave their jobs to take care of loved ones.
According to a Family Caregiver Alliance report, prior to the pandemic, US companies spent over $13.4 billion dollars in additional healthcare costs due to caregiver related health issues.
How can employers address increasing employee caregiving costs and manage the post-COVID return to offices? What, if any, are the permanent changes we may expect to see from employers? And how can the hard lessons of 2020 inform and prepare us for 2021 and beyond?
For employers, education and awareness are two pieces of this ever-complicating workforce puzzle. It will become vital for employers to survey their workforces, understand their needs and provide informed, sympathetic support and solutions. The new normal will require new approaches, and a more fine-tuned finger on the pulse of employees’ individual home circumstances is chief among them.
In doing so, we expect several scenarios to emerge surrounding employee caregivers. Pre COVID concerns centered around keeping loved ones safe at home, stress management and navigating healthcare paperwork. I anticipate these concerns will intensify, in part, to the outsized manner in which COVID has attacked our older and most vulnerable citizens.
With almost 40% of COVID deaths at least tangentially tied to long-term facilities, many caregivers moved loved ones into their own homes and are extremely hesitant to return them to group facilities. Understandably given COVID’s toll, that dynamic is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future – vaccine or no vaccine – and must be addressed by employers to realize the levels of employee engagement and production enjoyed pre-pandemic.
This new normal must be met with new tools. Previously, many employers defaulted to an EAP to provide guidance on a wide range of topics; while EAPs certainly provide value, they are often just not enough.
According to the Business Group on Health, median utilization for EAPs was 5.5% in 2018. Even if EAP usage doubled, it would still indicate that the vast majority of employees are either unaware of their benefits or simply need more robust resources. In either case, education and awareness are needed to reach the broader employee population.
For employees requiring more assistance than their EAP provides, there are several companies that specialize in caregiving support as a value-added benefit. For example, there are programs that take the guesswork out of the various circumstances – and therefore the widely disparate, highly individualized needs – caregiving can comprise.
Benefit programs exist that leverage national networks of health care professionals and facilities, to provide employees unlimited access to personalized care advice and help find suitable care solutions for their aging loved ones. Such knowledge-driven caregiving benefits allow employees to stop playing professional caregiving coordinator, help alleviate the need to be the mastermind and key orchestrator of a highly complex, multifactor caregiving regimen.
Flexibility is Key
Flexibility will be critical as employers determine their workplace models for 2021 and beyond. While some companies may long for a return to traditional brick-and-mortar office culture, most employees would prefer to continue working remotely when the pandemic subsides. According to a Gallup poll on employees returning to the workforce, 65% of GenX, 58% of Baby Boomers and 74% of Millennials would rather not return to offices full time when the pandemic subsides.
This employee preference will likely influence many employers, who may choose to implement a hybrid approach allowing workers to telecommute for at least a portion of the time. Of course, this decision will have ramifications for employee caregivers as they determine how best to remain productive at work while continuing to provide sufficient care for loved ones.
Regardless, I expect employers will continue to focus on employee engagement and morale going forward. Increased and continued flex-time, enhanced technology investments to foster the virtual workplace, more relaxed dress codes and other enthusiasm-boosting enhancements will become part of the company landscape as we return to a more business-as-usual environment.
Coaching & communication
It is also anticipated that HR trainings will continue to help managers and leaders better support employees during this transition time. Training programs that highlight manager coaching, enhanced communication skills and other employee engagement needs will play a persistent role in fully supporting and assisting employees as they navigate their post-COVID career paths.
If the single-minded question posed to employers was “How can you best support employee caregivers?”, the answer might be as simple as this: Provide them with support, programs and empathy – and do so consistently. While this may seem obvious, the point is that COVID has brought to light a dilemma that has existed for many years but was never fully addressed.
The simple significance of employers asking solution-centric questions to employee caregivers – and then making reasonable, relatively minor changes to help them – is a critical first step toward meeting the new normal’s needs.
The first, yes… but by no means the last. From there, employer benefits must continue to evolve to support the growing number of employee caregivers who wish to remain in the workforce, but must balance family and work obligations to do so effectively. Rather than think of this support as temporary, the most goal-oriented companies will make these caregiver enhancements permanent to attract and retain top talent.
Since the US population over the age of 65 is expected to grow from the 56 million in 2020 to over 70 million by 2030, employers should plan for an increased number of unpaid caregivers in their ranks for the foreseeable future. If employers can meet employee caregiving’s moment, they’ll be set up for years of success.