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Strategies for Wellness at Work

The 21st Century Workplace and the Caretaker Crisis

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Recently I asked a large audience of about 300 HR, Benefits and Wellness professionals how many of their organizations were thinking about the caretaking issue and the impact it is having on their workforce.  Only one hand went up in the room. Just one. It’s hard to believe that most organizations are having little to no discussion about this issue given the mental and physical drain it has on employees that are caretakers.

When we say the word caretaker the first thing that comes to mind for most people is caring for children and we view that as a normal part of life.  I am a parent. Of course I take care of my children.  Some employees, particularly if they have aging parents, know that caretaking applies to increasing responsibilities as parents, as well as support for older relatives.  And then there are employees with adult children or family members that have challenges that don’t allow them to live outside the home (example: adult children that are severely autistic).  

What does that have to do with the workplace? 

It means your caretaking employees have a second full-time job.  And it’s one they don’t get paid to do.  And though there are certainly men that do caretaking, research shows that the large majority of caretaking responsibilities for children and/or parents are handled by women.  

A male CEO and friend/colleague said this was something he had never really considered.  Then he started thinking about the calls his wife made to their kids when they were on the road together.  He began to listen to her concerns about homework, the kids getting enough sleep, who their kids were spending time with, if they were getting sick, etc. He realized this was on her mind all the time.  He admitted, when working, this really wasn’t something he spent a lot of time thinking about.  That doesn’t make him a bad father.  In fact, he is a very dedicated father and spends more time with his kids then many of the male business leaders I’ve known in my career.  He’s one of the good guys.   But he recognized that his wife shoulders most of the day-to-day caretaking for their children.

This is true for many women in the workforce, whether they are in a senior leadership position, an architect, a professor, a kindergarten teacher, a nurse, a sales associate or third shift cleaning supervisor.  

This issue cuts across all socioeconomic levels.  

In cultures around the world women from an early age are viewed as the caretakers, much more than their brothers.   In many third world countries, it means young girls are required to care for younger siblings while their brothers get to go to school.   But this issue is not just about low-income women.  I’ve spoken with female CEO’s and managing directors that have had to shoulder leading in their organizations and handling caretaking issues for children and parents.

You may want to ask yourself what has happened to your female employee before they started working for you.   For many, not only did they have to get ready for their workday, they may have gotten one or several children ready for school, fed them, made lunches, checked in with mom and/or dad to see if they had their medications and paid a few bills. They may have had to drive a family member to school or a daycare program.  Then they start their workday.  In the evenings, they may be making sure children are getting homework done, preparing dinner, throwing in a few loads of laundry, checking on work emails and then getting everyone to bed.  And checking in again with mom and dad.  And doing one more review of emails, just to try and keep ahead.

The result is usually an employee that doesn’t have time to care for themselves.  They are more likely to get sick, more prone to depression, and have no time to get to the gym, have down time, or bond with the team after work.  Yes, their blood pressure is probably up.  They are probably not getting enough sleep.  They want to succeed, but have barriers that their non-caretaking colleagues do not have.  It is not an even playing field.

Many organizations have affinity groups for women in the workplace that focus on negotiating skills, preparing to take on leadership roles, etc.  They’ve been around for years.  And yet the numbers of women at the top of organizations in all professions hasn’t really budged in 10 years. 

What’s going on? There are barriers that don’t get discussed enough or are not addressed at all. 

We don’t talk about the self care that needs to happen to be at our best, as female leaders.  Great athletes eat well, stay hydrated, get recovery time and have coaches.  If they get hurt, they are taken off the field and evaluated and then given appropriate treatment before getting back on the field. How many “high performing” work environments truly treat their talent like elite athletes?  Are we just fooling ourselves with check the box answers?  One way to measure that is to ask whether or not we are OK with who is walking out the door.  We know many talented women are leaving in their mid 30’s.

  • If your female employees have a different caretaking load, in addition to work responsibilities, can they compete with their male counterparts? 
  • If a women in business is viewed as a caretaker, does that hurt her chances to be promoted? 
  • Is she aware that it is hurting her chances because she sees few women with families in leadership positions? 

I’ve heard behind closed doors lots of comments by leadership that clearly showed they didn’t want female leaders to be caretakers.  “She’s having a second baby.  She won’t be able to be the type of leader we need.” Does that ever get said about a male employee moving up in the company that is having his second child?  

I had a conversation with a senior female leader who has a law degree from a top tier school that shared her story of getting passed over for a promotion.  She was told that her male counterpart was a family man and needed the salary increase.  FYI – She was a mom at the time.

Many companies talk about wanting more female leadership in their organizations. And with good reason. As per the Harvard Business Review, when a company goes from 0% to 30% for top female leadership, qualified leadership, on average there is a 15% increase in the profit margin.  It makes good business sense.

So why aren’t companies addressing one of the major barriers, caretaking, holding back women from leadership positions?  Why are we not discussing gender specific issues in a more meaningful way to design work that supports our caregiving employees?  

There are some that are.  They are forward thinking organizations that are making positive change in their cultures.  Some do have onsite daycare.  Some are putting in programs for emergency child or eldercare.  Some recognize the benefits of more flexible schedules so caretakers can get children/parents to appointments or deal with an issue before it becomes a crisis.  Some have onsite or dedicated offsite resources to better support caretaking challenges for their employees.  It has helped their bottom line.

We are witnessing a younger generation of men seeing themselves as being more actively engaged in caretaking.  That is great news.  However, they too will begin to feel the pressure of getting ahead at work vs. being a caretaker.  It’s not just a female issue. Down the road, this may be less of a gender specific discussion and more of an employee issue.  But we are many years away from that being the case in the U.S.

Our workplaces are still very much modeled on a world where men were the breadwinners and women ran the household.  People worked 9 – 5 jobs, or 7 – 3/3 - 11 shifts.  There was more time to be with family and friends.  There were no evening or weekend emails.  In our 21st Century world, many of our employees are single parents or a single person caring for an older adult.  There is no “mom/wife” at home.  And yet work in many organizations is designed based on an outdated model.

With an aging population in the U.S. more and more employees will be caring for older adults.  With more and more women working, and needing to work to support their families, this will increasingly be an issue that needs more attention.

Have you done a survey to know how much of an impact this is having on your workforce?  If this issue is impacting 20% or 30% (or more) of your workforce, shouldn’t you know that? Do you know what quality resources are available and which of those would be most effective for your work culture?

Take the time to discuss the caretaking issue with your leadership.

If you are the leader, discuss this issue with your executive team.  By doing a better job of addressing the caretaking issues impacting your workforce, particularly your female employees, your company can be seen as not only effectively addressing gender equity issues, you can be seen as an employer of choice.  With a better path to leadership, your female talent can potentially help you increase your bottom line. They will better be able to bring their best to work every day to be more connected to the company’s mission and goals. And that is good for everyone in the organization, men and women.

For more information, you can download, at no cost, the Global Women 4 Wellbeing (GW4W) white paper that addresses the connection between women in leadership, their financial well-being and caretaking at www.gw4w.org.  You can also get the most recent research on caretaking for older adults from the AARP website.


About the Author

Mim Senft is the founder of Motivity Partnerships a workplace wellness consultancy that offers an integrated solution with vetted wellness partners that work for your culture and your team. She has over 20 years of corporate experience in project management, benefits design and wellness program strategy and implementation.  She is a certified as a Worksite Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute; has her GBA group benefits designation through the International Foundation of Benefit Professionals (IFEBP); her property and casualty insurance certification, Accredited Advisor in Insurance (AAI), through the Insurance Institute of America; and became a certified yoga instructor in 2006.  Mim is a regular speaker at conferences and roundtable discussions on topics related to employee benefits, corporate wellness/wellbeing programs, and keeping a competitive edge in today’s workplace.