As the American population continues to age, more and more people find themselves donning the mantle of caregiver and providing care for their aging loved ones. For many people, however, this abrupt transformation into a family caregiver is occurring during the peak of their careers — when both responsibility and earning potential are at their highest.
What is a Working Family Caregiver?
Working family caregivers are people who, in addition to their part-time or full-time job, also take care of an elderly or terminally-ill loved one, and are usually that loved one’s primary source of everyday care. 42% of the working American population has performed some level of care for their elderly loved ones or for a terminally-ill family member in the past 5 years.
People often come into their new role caregiving suddenly and unexpectedly, as a result of a loved one’s medical emergency, an accident, or wandering off from home. Put simply, family caregivers are all around us, and odds are, at some point in life, all of us will provide care to a loved one who has fallen ill."There are only four kinds of people in this world—those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregivers."
The Challenges of Being a Working Family Caregiver
This unexpected and sudden shift radically disrupts a now-caregiver’s work life. Schedules are harder to adhere to, project deadlines are more difficult to meet, and the overall demands of working life become extremely challenging — with the caregiver’s emotions, focus, and energy being pulled and stretched between work and their loved one’s care.
Disruption in on-the-job focus and overall career
The constant stresses, care emergencies, and the overall level of effort required to provide adequate care for their loved one force most caregivers into making difficult work accommodations or quit their jobs altogether. Nearly 68% of caregivers report making work accommodations in order to adjust to their caregiving responsibilities.
Discrimination from peers and superiors; discrimination during hiring
Being a working family caregiver may demand that you work odd hours, need to take unexpected time off, or rush away from the office to go tend to your loved one during an emergency.
While caregivers should do their best to plan ahead and limit these interruptions, they can still occur. Over time, these actions can give rise to discrimination from peers, who may begin to take notice of these emergencies and extended leaves of absence, regardless of whether or not the family caregiver in question is still fulfilling their on-the-job responsibilities.
“There she goes again, off to go ‘take care of her mom’ … ”
“Did you hear that he’s taking more time off?”
“Third PTO request this quarter? A little much, don’t you think?”
Caregivers also face discrimination during the hiring process. Employers often question a caregiver’s abilities to fully perform their on-the-job duties and devote full focus to their work, regardless of whether or not the caregiver’s qualifications meet or even exceed the position’s requirements.
Personal financial burden
The majority of working family caregivers are unpaid and often go into their own pockets in order to provide for their loved one’s care expenses, with more than 4 out of 10 (40%) of caregivers spending more than $5,000 (USD) annually on caregiving expenses.
Unfortunately, this burden tends to fall disproportionately on low-wage workers, who are twice as likely than higher-income workers to provide more than 30 hours/week of unpaid care to their parents or parents-in-law.
Emotional, mental, and physical burnout
Working caregivers’ focus and energy are in constant demand between their career and their loved one’s care needs. The next doctor’s appointment, the next big project deadline, the next round of medication — these thoughts and tasks are always weighing upon the minds and hearts of working caregivers.
The level of constant, continuous output demanded by the caregiving role is extreme, and without exercising proper self-care, total burnout is a very real problem and an all too common outcome.
How to Balance Work and Caregiving
Despite the hardships of being a working caregiver, it is possible to achieve a modicum of balance during this period of your life and career.
Have the caregiving discussion with your employer
As soon as possible, schedule a time with your employer to discuss the shift in your life and to explore what options are available to you concerning your schedule, project workload, and other responsibilities. Honest, open communication is key during this conversation — the more your employer is able to understand your situation, the better equipped she or he is to help you find a balance that can work for both you and the company.
Explore alternate or modified working arrangements
During your discussion, explore what alternate working or scheduling options your employer is willing to allow.
Can you swap shifts with another employee?
Are you able to take on a lighter workload on your current project?
Can you come in on weekends, evenings, or extra early in the mornings?
Is telecommuting or reporting in via an internet connection a possibility?
Regardless of the options available to you, make yourself as available as possible, express gratitude, and be willing to compromise — your supervisor may be risking their own job security in trying to give you these flexible options.
Ultimately, remember that if you’re a faithful and hard-working employee, and you’re open to compromising according to what needs your organization has, your employer will likely try to help find a path toward both parties staying on track. Your employer won’t likely be willing to risk the lowered productivity, decreased morale, and increased workplace disruption that comes from conflicts with workers.
Know your workplace rights as a family caregiver
As a working family caregiver, knowing what rights you have at work in relation to your caregiving duties is key when discussion options with your employer.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
In 1993, The United States Department of Labor established the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) with one ideal in mind: should you or a loved one get sick, injured, or otherwise require a high level of care, you shouldn’t have to fear losing your job.
FMLA allows workers, including family caregivers, the ability to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in order to tend to the needs of their loved ones, or themselves, during a time of injury or sickness. In addition, FMLA prohibits supervisors and employers from threatening you should you seek to take time off to tend to your caregiving responsibilities.
Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies for FMLA, nor do all companies. Your company must have more than 50 employees, you need to have worked more than 1250 hours in the last 12 months, and you must have been employed by the company you’re requesting FMLA leave from for at least 12 months.
Contact your company’s human resources (HR) department in order to understand both your personal FMLA qualifications, and those of your company, and what options are available to you.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Though not directly established to benefit working family caregivers, the Americans with Disabilities Act can yield some benefit. Under the ADA, your employer cannot treat you any differently should you need to provide care for your loved one with a qualifying disability.
If your employer allows for your colleagues to take time off to care for their children, the same benefits must be extended to you when asking for time off to care for your disabled parent or loved one.
As a caregiver, your natural inclination is to provide for your loved one, your family, and nearly everyone else before you focus any attention on yourself. However, practicing proper self-care is crucial to ensuring you have the energy required to get through the day and provide quality care to your loved one.
As a caregiver, it feels as if there’s never enough time in the day, least of all for yourself. And when the choice comes down to quickly grabbing that burger and then heading to bed — we get it. It’s really hard to pass up.
While a burger once in awhile won’t be detrimental, a continually poor diet can quickly erode your mental and physical wellness, damaging your ability to care for your loved one, focus on the job, and to have enough energy to get through the day.
Investing in your dietary well-being, and in foods that are low in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars can greatly improve your energy and alertness throughout the day. ChooseMyPlate.gov, a United States dietary health initiative, is a great place to get started in building healthy, nutritious meals.
Get adequate rest when possible and invest in light exercise
Your loved one’s care needs may require that you be up all hours of the night changing bandages, administering injections, or helping them take medications.
We understand that saying “get plenty of sleep” is easier said than done; however, be it by way of having a family member sit with a loved one while you rest, or grabbing a quick nap when possible — invest in getting adequate rest as your schedule allows.
Lastly, investing in 20-30 minutes of light exercise — walking, jogging, or any activity that gets your heart rate up — each day will help give you the energy you need for the day, provide for more restful sleep at night, and improve your overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Form a support network and exercise support options available to caregivers
Though not everyone may be willing to lend a hand, reaching out to friends and family during this time for emotional and spiritual support, as well as help with caregiving tasks or household chores, can be an incredible asset to you during your time as a caregiver.
Informal caregiving assistance from friends and family
Friends and family, simply stopping by to sit and watch your loved one for a short time, can be a tremendous help. These short periods of their visiting with your loved one can allow you time to finish household errands, dedicate time to work tasks, or get some much-needed rest.
Adult daily care facilities
Adult daily care services are specially suited to adults who need assistance during the day. Aimed at keeping seniors active and engaged throughout the day, should their condition permit such activity, adult daily care facilities can provide working family caregivers with peace of mind throughout the workday.
Should your loved one be enrolled in a hospice care program, you can exercise your hospice’s respite care program. Under respite care, your loved one is cared for in an assisted living facility for a period of up to 3 days, allowing you to get some much-needed rest.
How Have You Balanced Caregiving and Work?
In what ways have you found the time to balance both caregiving and work? Are there any tips you’d give new working caregivers? We’d love to hear your thoughts and talk about what you’ve found to be effective in achieving balance between caregiving and work. Let us know in the comments below!