When an employer thinks about an employee who serves as a caregiver, the image that often comes to mind is of a middle-aged woman caring for her mother, who lives relatively close to the caregiver’s home and workplace. Quick trips to handle a crisis for the care receiver or a few local phone calls hardly seem like major disruptions in the workplace. However, such demands can grow substantially as the geographic distance between the caregiver and the care receiver increases. According to a 2015 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute—Caregiving in the U.S.—about 5 percent of those who provide 21 or more hours of care per week and 8 percent of those who provide 0–20 hours of care per week live more than two hours away from the person they are helping.
Long-distance caregiving—defined as caring for someone who is more than 100 miles away—is a critical issue for employers. Most of these caregivers are working full- or part-time, and sometimes they must rearrange work schedules, miss work, or even quit their jobs to deal with caregiving responsibilities. Keep the big picture in mind in calculating what the loss of a valued employee ultimately costs a company. If an employee cannot find a way to meet the demands of caregiving as well as the demands of the employer, he or she will probably seek different employment. The cost of recruiting and retraining employees may far outweigh the cost of offering employees opportunities for a work-life balance that suits both parties. The long-term benefits to a company of a stable, competent workforce outweigh the short-term cost of flexible work arrangements. With some thought and planning, employers can develop a proactive stance that anticipates their own needs and those of the long-distance caregivers they employ.
Here are some practical tips for employers:
- Consider a plan for flexible use of sick time, personal leave, and vacation time. One of the greatest challenges of long-distance caregiving is the time required to make phone calls to service and medical care providers who can be reached only during regular business hours. Flexibility in start and quit times can cover some of these needs, but developing a plan for flexible use of a caregiver’s sick time, personal leave, and vacation time can help to fill any gaps. Allowing an employee to use an hour of personal leave time to make phone calls during the work day keeps the employee at the workplace, recognizes that an employer isn’t required to subsidize the time needed to meet caregiving responsibilities, and does not unduly burden employees by forcing them to take an entire day off.
- Proactively offer caregivers a variety of flexibility in structuring the work environment. The need for flexible work options to accommodate frequent, often unexpected, trips to attend to a care recipient should go beyond flexible starts and stops to the work day. Long-distance caregiving requires a different time commitment than a few hours here and there. Flexible arrangements might include flexible work weeks, telecommuting, or work-at-home arrangements. Most caregiving does not go on indefinitely. These flexible options, as well as job sharing and temporary part-time employment, are arrangements that may not be needed long, and they encourage valued employees to keep their jobs.
- Provide opportunities for co-workers to pool benefits such as sick days, vacation, and personal time on behalf of a colleague responsible for long-distance care. In work settings with employees who are friends as well as co-workers, a collaborative approach to helping out a caregiver is excellent for company morale. Almost all employees will face some kind of caregiving responsibility in the future. The opportunity to pay it forward will be seen as a good faith effort on the part of management, generating employee loyalty.
These three approaches use flexibility and breaks as a core model for supporting long-distance caregivers in the workplace. (Click here to learn more about this model, which focuses on temporary leaves of absence or reconfiguration of work arrangements as a strategy for supporting working caregivers). Observing this model in practice demonstrates how companies can build on existing options to create a workable strategy for a wide variety of caregivers. Many employers have already put in place some of the policies just discussed. By augmenting them, many caregiving-related policy gaps can be filled.