Work-Life Balance: Help Is on the Way

The amount parents spend on child care takes up an average of 15 percent of their household income. For most families, child care is the second-highest monthly expense behind rent or mortgage.
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"By a show of hands, how many of you would accept a job with no benefits? With no vacation time? With no pay?"

Last month, Audra Rodriguez--a working mother of two young children and caregiver for her elderly mother--posed these questions to the audience at the inaugural Care Summit. Of course, when she finished, not a single hand remained in the air.

"I've just given you the job description of a family caregiver," she said. "We care for our family 24/7 without a break and without a day off."

Audra went on to tell her own story. She told us what it felt like to get the phone call that her mother was having a stroke, how hard the therapy and recovery periods were on her family, and the challenges she's faced over the past four years after moving her mother from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. to live with her family. Since her mom moved in, everything's changed. Both Audra and her husband had to find new jobs to accommodate their responsibilities, they've learned how to care for someone who requires around-the-clock care and they've dealt with the financial burden of caregiving that cost them $105,000 last year alone.

Audra's story is heartbreaking, but it's not unusual. Gail Hunt, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, delivered the keynote address at the Care Summit where she shared results of the NAC's groundbreaking study Caregiving in the U.S. 2009 which reported that 29 percent of this country's adult population (over 65 million people) are involved in caring for children or loved ones.

Families Need Help
Caregiving can be an enormous burden on families--both emotionally and financially--and affects all aspects of their lives. In particular, caregivers have trouble finding the right work/life fit that helps them lead successful careers while also balancing their responsibilities at home.

The State of Care Index reports families with two or more children spend $12,445 annually on child care. That's a lot of money! The amount parents spend on child care takes up an average of 15 percent of their household income. For most families, child care is the second-highest monthly expense behind rent or mortgage. Those who care for elderly relatives contribute $5,911 each year towards their care. The families surveyed reported in overwhelming numbers that their caregiving responsibilities negatively impacted their work output or career progress. It is not an easy job at all.

The pressures associated with caregiving contribute to stress-related illnesses like heart disease, hypertension, depression or diabetes. For companies, this means that helping workers with their caregiving responsibilities isn't just an added worker benefit, it's a wellness issue with long-lasting benefits for the corporation. The NAC says that absenteeism related to caregiving costs employers over $33 billion each year.

Employees Want Jobs That Help
Several companies and organizations (Dell, Deloitte, Bright Horizons and the U.S. Army) that are doing great things to support work/life fit and the caregiving needs of their employees shared their experiences with us at the Care Summit. One of the most important lessons we learned was that talking about caregiving is okay; bosses need to know what you're going through at home and how it will affect your work.

This is especially important for those caring for an elderly parent or loved one. Many times co-workers know if you're parent yourself, but they aren't always aware when you're caring for an elderly family member, as well. We celebrate our children's milestones at work, but we're not as willing to talk about caring for a parent who has fallen ill, moved in with you, or may be in the latter stages of their life.

As someone who's in both employer/employee situations (I'm a CEO, a mother of two boys, and I've helped provide care for my parents in the past), I know how hard it can be to keep up with the daily juggle. At my company, I'm responsible for encouraging an open policy where we give our team members the flexibility they need to manage their family lives while also being honest about my own obligations with our management team.

Employees Need Flexibility
If we're honest with ourselves, we know there have been times in the past where we really needed more flexibility at work, but we didn't speak up and paid for it later on. If you're in a spot where you need that flexibility now, don't be scared or ashamed to admit it! We all go through points in our careers where we need a little help at home.

If you feel like you're not getting the help or support you need at work, it may be time to speak up. If your life as a caregiver has become more demanding, let your boss know. They're more likely to help you find support if they're familiar with what's going on in your life.

Help is On the Way
At the Care Summit, our goal was to bring non-profit organizations focused on helping families together with corporations that are doing exciting things with employee benefits and work/life fit to generate new ideas and connections to resources. This is, by no means, a small, self-contained idea exclusive to the group that joined us in Washington, D.C.

On a national level, we're seeing some exciting things happen within government. There are new initiatives being laid out to help support families, particularly through the work of the White House's Middle Class Task Force. Not only is the Task Force asking for more funding for caregivers (particularly those in the Sandwich Generation), but it's also actively researching ways to increase workplace flexibility by listening to caregiving organizations and corporations.

The White House Council on Women and Girls (led by Michelle Obama) is also working to improve work/life balance and encouraging employers to recognize the responsibilities parents have when it comes to caregiving. Recently, the council highlighted a new report showcasing the evolving American workforce's need for flexibility. The study, Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility, points out that employees aren't the only beneficiaries of flexibility; employers also stand to gain by meeting the needs of their workers.

"Almost one-third of firms cite costs or limited funds as obstacles to implementing workplace flexibility arrangements," the study found. "However, the benefits of adopting such management practices can outweigh the costs by reducing absenteeism, lowering turnover, improving the health of workers, and increasing productivity."

If you're a caregiver like Audra, I want you to know you aren't alone. There are millions of other men and women around the country facing the same struggles you and I are. They're fighting to make a difference in how we care for our families and balance our careers. And there are many, many organizations, companies and government agencies right there working alongside us.

I believe we're at an exciting point on the road toward gaining more support for family caregivers. Awareness of the burden caregiving has on parents, families, employees and employers is mounting. We're seeing new steps taken from a national level down to individual companies that give families the support and flexibility they need. Let's keep pushing forward!

Help is on the way.