According to a recent Harvard Business School study, almost three-quarters of U.S. workers face some kind of caregiving responsibility—and of them, 32 percent left a job because they couldn’t balance work and family duties and more than 80 percent said their responsibilities at home kept them from doing their best at work.
Those are staggering figures—and ones that I’m all too aware of through my work with the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation.
I’ve spent over 10 years working in philanthropy, as an executive director for a non-profit and as a critical care nurse. I’ve witnessed firsthand the joys and trials of family caregivers, and in my current position, I support the Foundation’s investments in caregiving, one of the fundamental tenets of our work.
That HBS study zeroed in on one of the biggest obstacles facing caregivers: so much of their work goes on behind the scenes, and even friends or employers may be unaware of their caregiving obligations. While 80 percent of workers said their productivity had been affected by their caregiving responsibilities, just 24 percent of employers said caregiving was affecting the performance of their employees.
That gap is likely taking shape because many employees hide the burden of caregiving responsibilities. They struggle to balance the unexpected and recurring care obligations that require mental, physical and financial resources to address. This sets off a tough cycle: Caregivers struggle to balance their work and family responsibilities, they grow overstressed and their performance at work suffers. Some may even leave the workforce entirely, leaving employers to cover another major cost in the loss of talented, trained employees.
The current caregiving landscape is particularly hard on women, who make up 60 percent of caregivers in the U.S. Women have long carried the responsibility of caring for their families and loved ones, which places a heavy burden on their economic security—they’re more likely to take leave, but tend to have lower retirement savings, in part due to the cumulative impacts of the wage gap over time.
There are many complicated challenges facing caregivers across the country, not the least of which is articulating what it means to be a caregiver. The spectrum of care, from childcare to eldercare, crosses demographics and takes many forms. Many caregivers do not even identify as such. We’re committed to helping to address this trend by investing in initiatives and programs that will make caregiving a respected, and better supported, role for family members. We want to help to identify and share positive stories of caregivers—and in doing so, elevate the role of “caregiver” as something to be not only understood, but celebrated.
Being a caregiver can also be an isolating experience. Many people feel they’re alone in shouldering the burden, even when it comes to caring for immediate family members. A study from the Practica Group, which reinforced the findings of many national studies, revealed that family caregivers are often unaware of existing resources, or find them too daunting to be useful. That’s why it is critical to build networks of organizations, individuals and volunteers that support family caregivers, in ways they find respectful and easy to access—whether that’s expanding volunteer networks to better serve family caregivers or providing support to existing institutions like local hospitals to offer expert support for family caregivers whose loved ones are grappling with serious medical challenges.
The good news is that there are already promising resources and services available to caregivers: The TimeSlips program provides resources and tools for family members to use storytelling to meaningful engage with relatives who have dementia; BonaResonds, based in rural Allegheny County, New York, builds wheelchair ramps for people who would otherwise be unable to leave their homes. But further investment and resources are needed. We’re focusing on supporting existing programs for caregivers to maximize their reach and effectiveness—providing non-profits with marketing and communication support to collect data and information about the caregivers they serve, for example, in order to understand the market for their programs and services.
There’s no denying that we’re facing a crisis around caregiving in the United States, and that it is only going to worsen. As the U.S. population continues to age, more and more Americans will assume caregiving responsibilities. It is imperative that we properly invest in educating, supporting and championing caregivers across the country, and we all have a role to play. It is time for employers, politicians, and business owners alike to recognize the work of caregivers and increase awareness around the issue.
Caregivers deserve to have access to resources and support from their employers. They deserve to have their work acknowledged—particularly women caregivers, whose economic security is inextricably linked to access to family friendly policies and resources.