How the pandemic made 'Caregiver' the newest workplace identity

In the expansion of diversity efforts at work, one term is seemingly everywhere: caregiver. A recent survey by workplace equity platform Syndio finds that workers with caregiving responsibilities are the fastest-growing category of employee identity groups, with 12% of companies tracking them as such.

Like so many current workplace trends, this, too, is rooted in the pandemic, as widespread illness and disruptions to daily life, such as school and daycare closures, left many people with newfound caregiving obligations. “Childcare responsibilities expanded to include grandparents, older siblings, friends, neighbors, and others within a pod,” says Michelle Yu, co-founder and CEO of Josie, a service for both parents transitioning back to work and their employers. “Even the term itself is more action-oriented—it signals someone’s wellbeing is resting on your shoulders and you are literally needing to give care.”

The statistics on caregiving vary widely, largely because the caregiver label is intentionally broad and inclusive. An estimated 18 to 22% of US workers provide care for an elderly, sick, or disabled family member, according to a white paper earlier this year from the nonprofit Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, while almost three-quarters of employees said they had some type of current caregiving responsibility in a 2019 report from Harvard Business School. The object of caregiving, it turns out, is in the eye of the caregiver: Recipients can be siblings, pets, neighbors, aging parents, the aunt or uncle or neighbor who has no one else. As the world (and offices) open up again, the focus on how to best support all employees who identify as caregivers—including but not only parents—remains urgent.

At the top of the list: redefining what flexible work really means. “Organizations also need to institutionalize flexibility as being more than just ‘remote’ or ‘hybrid’ work. Or even a perk,” says Leslie Forde, who runs Mom's Hierarchy of Needs, a company that helps change work practices to be more supportive and friendly to caregivers. “Everyone in the workforce benefits from flexible expectations and sustainable work practices that allow them to care for themselves or others.”

Among suggestions from Yu, Forde, and other startups, consultants, and advisers working with employers to best support caregivers:

  • Rethink when meetings take place. Early in the morning or evenings are “times that are often challenging for caregivers, of children or adults, to participate,” says Forde.
  • Provide back-up childcare or reduced-cost childcare as part of your benefits package. More than half of employers report offering some type of childcare benefit, according to Care.com; about the same number plan to offer more.
  • Assist with eldercare, in addition to long-term planning and legal services.
  • Assess family-planning policies. Fertility and egg-freezing benefits are starting to feel like table stakes. As of 2020, 42% of large US employers offered coverage for IVF, while almost one-fifth offered egg freezing. Last year saw 8% year-over-year growth in large employers offering fertility or adoption benefits, according to FertilityIQ.
  • Offer postpartum benefits such as milk storage, shipping, and access to on-demand paraprofessionals like doulas and lactation consultants.
  • During leave, some companies offer stipends for food delivery, coverage for lactation consultants, even reimbursement for Snoo rentals (that’s a robotic bassinet, for the uninitiated).
  • For the return to work, more companies are offering coaching, ramp-up schedules, and mental healthcare programs to help make the transition easier.
  • Assess policies for who qualifies for paid leave. New York state, for example, recently expanded its paid-leave policy to include people caring for siblings.
  • Weave support of caregivers into management training, framing it as a key part of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

If the list sounds skewed heavily toward parents, that’s because most efforts to support caregivers at work have been largely focused on this demographic. However, Covid has also made it feel more comfortable and acceptable for workers to talk about care for their own aging parents, siblings with special needs, or other relatives and friends who might be dependent on them.

What changed? In some cases, Covid made it unsafe for paid professionals (home health aides, babysitters, occupational therapists) to come to work, and family members had to pick up their duties. In others, workers reprioritized what really matters, and many put time with and obligations to family at the top of the list. In some cases, the desire to build greater community and connection fueled a greater time commitment to care. (And yes, the pandemic puppy boom also played a role: An estimated one in five households has acquired a pet since the beginning of Covid, And many workplaces are now reassessing policies around bringing pets to work and offering pet insurance.)

If everybody is now a caregiver, how can employers help, well, everybody? One strategy the experts agree upon is working with the caregivers within your organization to customize benefits, treatment, and flexibility to accurately reflect people’s needs. “At a more systemic level, ensuring you have a way to identify trends among your caregiver population, sharing those back with the right stakeholders, and using it to drive policies and programs that best support caregivers at every stage in the game,” Yu said. “This includes everything from recruiting to onboarding to performance reviews.”

“It’s also important to understand the intersections of caregiving as an identity with other attributes,” she added, mentioning mothers of color and single mothers, who have always shouldered more of the burden of caregiving but were also disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women of color, for example, make up more than half the workers in service jobs such as housekeeping, personal care, and nursing assistance.

Employers need to seek specificity, reiterates Forde: “There are even finer distinctions, like caring for someone with a cognitive disability or memory loss, versus somebody who has physical limitations,” she says. “Caregiver is the broad, umbrella term that ties us together, through these very human experiences. But as a researcher who has spent most of my career using data to solve problems, there are many benefits to being specific, whether that’s in the workplace or through public policy change.”

That, of course, can lead to tensions among workers, as people compare the support they’re receiving to that of others with different caregiving needs. But the role of the employer is to operate from a sense of abundance and to incorporate back-up systems into daily operations. No, running to a vet appointment is not the same as sitting at your father’s hospice bed—but bosses can meet both scenarios with compassion.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” reminds Sarah K. Peck, founder and CEO of Startup Parent, a blog, podcast and community for leaders and entrepreneurs with kids.

“Be specific about your own experience and needs, and don’t compare yourself to others,” she says. “The more honest we are about our own experiences, the more we can own the hard parts and get support when we need it.”

So let me take her advice and end on a note of honesty: Caregiving is all-consuming and erratic, at times tragic, and always existential. It does not operate on anyone’s schedule, and regularly, inevitably, notoriously throws the best laid plans into chaos. The tools and skills we learn in the workplace are not always applicable. The subjects of our care do not respond to feedback in the same way as our direct reports.

After years of trying to fix the various ailments of my parents and in-laws, meet the needs of my children, sustain friends and neighbors, I’ve realized the way to help caregivers like me is not one-size-fits-all policies or to set goals or benchmarks. It’s to allow us the time, resources, and flexibility to be there for our loved ones, without feeling like we’re letting down everyone around us in the process.

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