Melissa Brown, MSW, PhD

Melissa Brown, MSW, PhD

It’s good business to support employees who are taking care of elders.

In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter took on the difficulties mothers face in balancing work and family responsibilities. Her article, “Why Working Women Still Can’t Have It All,” challenges employers to consider the business advantages of flexible working hours, a shifting career pattern responsive to demands at home rather than “a straight upward slope,” and “family-comes-first management.”

Slaughter cites compelling evidence to back up her claim that family-friendly policies improve economic performance.

  • study of 527 U.S. companies published in 2000 found that “organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance” among their industry peers.
  • A 2003 study of share price reactions to 130 announcements of family-friendly policies in the Wall Street Journal found that “the announcements alone significantly improved share prices.”
  • A 2011 study of workplace flexibility showed positive correlations with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.

Of course, mothers aren’t the only workforce group whose accommodation should be of interest to employers. Since Slaughter’s article appeared, many commentators, notably Ellen Galinksy, have pointed out that fathers want and need family-friendly HR policies just as much.

A group largely overlooked in the discussion so far is employees—more than a third by 2020—who are responsible for the care of older adults. The federal Administration on Aging predicts that the number of Americans who are 65 and older will nearly double over the next twenty years, so the vast majority of employees can expect to provide care for an older relative at some point during their working lives.

Caregivers of older adults report just as much work-family conflict as parents do, and they report even higher levels of stress and symptoms of depression.

Why is this? One likely reason is that caregivers of older adults have few resources available to them, both within the community and in the workplace. For example, for every 26 child care centers in the U.S., there is only one adult day care center. Moreover, the number of employers offering programs to support employees caring for an older adult has steadily decreased since 2007.

When employees who provide care for older adults have the support they need, employers benefit in the following ways:

  • employees’ physical and mental health improves
  • job satisfaction and performance increase
  • job retention rates rise

What can employers do?

A good start is a basic workplace program of resources and referrals to help employees identify and locate services.

The next step is to make sure that employees charged with elder care have equal access to flexible work opportunities as mothers and fathers do. For some, this may mean working an alternative schedule; others may need the freedom to change their schedules on short notice to deal with emergencies.

Employers may also consider offering a lunchtime support group designed specifically for employees caring for an older adult. This setting would provide social support for caregivers and a forum for the exchange of information about resources and services.

For an increasing number of employers, designing a workplace that supports the needs of employees who take care of older adults is not only a humane gesture but also a business necessity. If you have experiences in this arena or innovative ideas, we invite you to share them here.


Melissa Brown, MSW, PhD
Adjunct Faculty
Graduate School of Social Work, Boston College
Phone: 978-790-5854