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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2 responses to “Positive Deviance: Supporting Working Caregivers”

  1. Victor Marshall says:

    A great piece on positive deviance, and the value of case studies Marcie. I hope it is picked up by many managers but also researchers, because there is much to be learned from studying workplaces that do and do not provide this ‘positive deviance’. Victor Marshall

  2. Marcie says:

    Thanks, Victor. I do feel that a focus on creative and positive deviance can encourage the development of new workplace models.