Building Usability: 3 ways for employers to create a supportive environment for working caregivers

Posted Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016  | Comments (3) rule
McNamara' photo Tay K. McNamara, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.8971
Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Social Work

Caregiving is an unavoidable reality for the workforce. Human resources policies such as “flexibility and breaks” and “financial supports and resources” can help working caregivers, but only if these policies move from employee handbooks to actual workplace practices. Many employees are uncomfortable about using these benefits, because they are concerned that doing so will make their coworkers, supervisors, or managers view them as less dedicated or competent, potentially jeopardizing their jobs. As Susan Eaton and others have observed, formal HR policies are insufficient if the workplace culture diminishes their usability—the extent to which employees feel free to act on those policies, confident that their career prospects and job security won’t suffer.

How can employers make caregiving policies more usable by the typical employee?

Workers: Education on site and on time

Educating workers about caregiving can help them to transition into and sustain their engagement both in work and caregiving over time. Keep in mind that employees may already be under pressure to balance work and caregiving responsibilities, so it’s smart to make caregiving-related informational resources available to workers on site and during regular work hours, preferably at times that don’t interfere with work tasks.

Lunch and learns are a good example of how to handle this. Typically offered on site during the lunch break, lunch and learns are opportunities to convey practical information to caregivers. Here are two models:

  1. Learn + share: Some of the meeting is instructional, presenting solid information on such pertinent topics as advance directives. During the remainder of the meeting, participants share ideas and process emotions.
  2. Learn from community resources: Bringing in presenters from community agencies and omitting time for participants to share their responses can appeal to employees who are not yet able, ready, or willing to make their status as caregivers known.

Coworkers and work teams: Pay it forward

Caregivers often fear that their coworkers see them as shirking or less serious about their work. Connecting these workers to coworkers (individually or as a group) in caregiving-supportive relationships can increase their confidence to take advantage of other caregiving policies. Coworker- and work team-based information and support programs often function best as pay-it-forward arrangements, in which new caregivers learn from experienced caregivers, and eventually become resources and mentors themselves.

Informal collaborations are a good way to organize such an arrangement. Here are two models:

  1.  One-on-one: An employee known to have some caregiving experience can be invited to mentor a colleague new to caregiving, helping the newcomer negotiate challenges both at work and in health service systems.
  2. On-site support groups: Employees join such a group voluntarily, and spend the first meeting brainstorming about the kinds of topics with which they could use help. Each week, group members are given “homework,” to encourage a sense of process.

Managers and supervisors: Gateways to organizational culture

Managers and supervisors have a huge influence on how comfortable workers feel about using their caregiving-related benefits. For this reason, both groups must buy in to the idea that support for working caregivers is in the organization’s best interests.

Training and educational resources can promote buy-in. With the right training and information, managers will learn to identify employees who are caregivers and help them to connect with community services (if needed) or to negotiate flexible work schedules to accommodate caregiving responsibilities. Here are two strategies:

  1. Direct manager training: Offer training sessions in which managers learn what they can ask appropriately, how to help employees identify needs that conflict with work schedules, and what combinations of support and fair compromises by the employer they can offer.
  2. Articles in company newsletters or on company websites: These could be original pieces on caregiving issues by HR staff or produced on contract by community agencies, such as the Alzheimer’s Association or Caregivers Alliance. People who don’t like the group approach will be especially appreciative of this alternative learning method. Consider linking to such resources as Employer Solutions for Family Caregivers, as appropriate.

Creating a workplace environment where people recognize, accept, and support the organization’s policies and programs for workers with caregiving responsibilities is essential for these policies to count. Building such acceptance within your organization at the individual, coworker/work group, and managerial level, by providing information and support, can ultimately increase the usability of other work/life balance programs, as well.

Comments (3) for "Building Usability: 3 ways for employers to create a supportive environment for working caregivers"

Positive Deviance: Supporting Working Caregivers

Posted Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016  | Comments (2) rule
Faculty Sponsor, Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Professor, Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College

Employees of all ages can find themselves unexpectedly navigating the unpredictable waters of elder caregiving. As they attempt to identify resources, services, and supports, many say they’re just making it up as they go along. In part, their sense of having to improvise reflects the complexities and fragmentation of the elder care service system: working caregivers learn to be grateful for whatever information and assistance come their way. Some families do figure out on their own a manageable way to look after elder relatives; often, they succeed because a nonworking family member is willing to take charge. But if everyone in a family is working, the transitions into elder caregiving can be overwhelming. According to a 2015  AARP Study, about one out of 20 employees had been forced to quit a job to care for an adult family member.

What it takes to stay

Why do experienced workers leave their jobs when caregiving responsibilities arise? Some employees are so perplexed by the sudden demands of elder care that they decide to leave the workforce so they can focus on the range of caregiving decisions they must make. Others, able to juggle work and care, want to keep their jobs, and would do so, given some flexibility and help. But if their supervisors and managers are unsympathetic, they might decide that their only choice is to quit.

In many domains of flexible workplace policy, employers have transcended some of the logistical challenges and pursued innovative talent management strategies. These employers have been called positive (or creative) deviants. The notion of positive deviance is familiar to public health experts, who have documented the benefits that early adopters of new health practices can reap: see, for example, Zeitlin, et al. on childhood nutrition (1990). Employers who are the early adopters of talent management innovations in caregiving policies and practices might find that these changes improve retention of employees with expertise and experience.

Learning from within

This country’s demographic trends leave no doubt that over the next two decades, the number of employees with caregiving responsibilities will increase. The compelling question is whether most employers are both willing and ready to partner with their employees as they plan for and manage the range of legal, financial, and caregiving challenges in store. One way for an employer to start on the path toward creative deviance is to read case studies  of programs developed by other employers. A good one is this study of Kimberly Clark, which built its Family Caregivers Network from the ground up, using resources already in place at that company. Next, an organization can search within its own ranks for managers and supervisors who have struck out on their own to support employees who have caregiving responsibilities. Learning from them, the organization can customize a formal program to suit its workforce and culture.

The experience of a large healthcare organization is a case in point. Recently, a group of colleagues and I partnered with this organization, because it wanted to adopt some innovative flexible work options. (The results are described in detail here.) Our first step was to identify supervisors who had already succeeded in making small changes that allowed for scheduling flexibility. Their experiences and stories provided both inspiration and reassurance to other supervisors in the organization when the time came to implement the new options.

Encouraging supervisors and their work teams to engage in creative problem solving can help to bridge the gap between the needs of a given organization and studies of what has worked elsewhere.

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