Tay K. McNamara, PhD & Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich, PhD

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.


Tay K. McNamara, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.8971
Email: mcnamatd@bc.edu

Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Social Work
Email: kathleen.mcinnis-dittrich@bc.edu