By Dennis Healy
The protracted impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to reverberate in workplaces across the country, especially affecting a segment of the employee population that is becoming increasingly beleaguered: those who are also serving as caregivers. There’s never been a more important time to consult with your clients on which benefits and services will best assist those employees who are caring for others—and also need to take care of their own mental health.
Caught up in the perfect storm
In the U.S., more than 1 in 5 people are caregivers, according to a recent AARP study. This weary segment of the workforce already had their hands full earlier this year caring for a loved one—like an aging parent or grandparent, or perhaps a child with disabilities.
Then the pandemic hit. In the midst of this medical and economic crisis, employees are faced with a triple-edged sword: they’re trying to navigate their own situation, whether it’s working from home or being asked to come back in to work. They may also have kids who are learning remotely or who’ve been sent home because of an outbreak at school. Or they’ve pulled a parent or grandparent out of a care facility because of infection or social isolation concerns. For a middle-aged adult living in the sandwich generation, this makes for a full house with a lot of responsibilities to juggle.
Understanding the increased pressure on employees
One person who’s seen these scenarios unfold firsthand is Jennifer Morris-Pugliese. She’s a Care Support Team Manager at CareScout®, whose caregiving services we offer to employees through our ARAG legal insurance plan. Her job is to provide emotional and logistical support during a family’s caregiving journey and help them make the best-informed decisions regarding care needs. In fact, last year she did that for me when a medical issue with my father arose. It was so helpful to have that type of guidance and support available, especially when you get into the nuts and bolts of addressing eldercare issues.
Morris-Pugliese notes that for people who suddenly find themselves in a caregiving role, it often feels like a whirlwind of tough decisions, difficult situations and unending obligations, especially now. “There’s so much uncertainty in our lives, and when you include caring for someone on top of that, it’s a lot of added stress. For example, if your loved one is admitted to the hospital or care facility, it’s now stressful like never before—perhaps you can’t visit them. Even getting information is challenging. It’s hard to emotionally prepare for that because it’s not our normal everyday situation.”
In California, for example, nursing homes remain sealed off to almost all visitors. Families and watch dogs are increasing pressure on state officials to allow at least one “essential caregiver” inside to check up on loved ones. “On the other hand,” she adds, “Caring for someone while working from home means even more isolation for and pressure on the caregiver, which takes a toll on the employee.”
The numbers show increased need for caregiving benefits
What does this mean for your clients? The day-to-day responsibilities and related stress that further tax employees’ emotional, physical and financial health spills over into where they work. This results in more absenteeism and presenteeism, reduced employee engagement and higher health costs.
For example, more than 80% of employees say caregiving has affected their productivity at work, according to a Harvard Business Review survey. In addition, the National Family Caregiver Alliance, a caregiver resource group, reports that caregiver related absenteeism costs companies about $5.1 billion each year and can increase a company’s healthcare costs.
But there is good news on the caregiving front: Employer interest in supporting employees with caregiving responsibilities is growing. According to a Business Group on Health® survey, over a third of respondents (35%) offer caregiver leave benefits now, and another 28% are considering it by 2022.
Echoing this trend, the 2019/2020 Employer Benchmarking Survey reported that 61% of respondents consider caregiving a top priority for them. And while nearly half (45%) believe they are on par with similar organizations in developing caregiver-friendly benefits, almost a quarter (22%) see themselves as below or well below average, a solid indication there is still room for improvement.
Caregiving complications caused by the pandemic
California residents have certainly been on a roller coaster ride when it comes to the setbacks and success of battling the coronavirus. It’s admittedly complicated by a labyrinth of mixed messages from public health officials, various state, county and city ordinances and differing social behaviors.
Despite many cities clamping down on stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic, cases exploded in June as the state rapidly reopened the economy and people went back to summer routines such as parties and other social gatherings. State officials have been particularly concerned about workers getting sick at their jobs and then infecting others at home. This is especially concerning for caregivers who may be caring for those in high-risk groups.
Additionally, school and childcare center closures, as well as heightened concerns over the health of the elderly—have increased the burdens of caregiving endured by workers. According to data collected by Kinside, a child care benefit provider, about 20% of daycares are not expected to reopen after the pandemic. If that percentage plays out, your clients will need to recognize that for employees who are working parents, their increased caregiving responsibilities will continue. Without childcare, many will be making difficult decisions about quitting jobs or reducing work hours. Even for those who decide to stay at work, it may be that their spouse has to quit a job or change their schedule in order to take care of the kids, resulting in new financial issues and added stress.
Morris-Pugliese states that in the cases she‘s managed, there are less adult daycare centers and day support available. “Even daycare centers that will open will probably have restrictions on the number of clients they can serve which will further exacerbate the strain on available supply.” She adds that it’s also more difficult to find home health care for her clients. “The agencies we’re reaching out to, they’re stretched thinner, they’re more cautious, conducting more training and working to ensure they have enough personal protective equipment. As a result, they have less staff available to do the work, which means caregivers may be taking over more of the physically demanding, day-to-day care.”
Look for benefits that benefit the caregiver
Time is such a valuable commodity in today’s request-and-immediate-response world, so it’s no surprise the most popular caregiving benefits are flexible work schedules (84%), remote work (67%) and paid time off (53%), according to the 2020 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report. The pandemic has forced many employers to offer all three of these benefits, at least in the short-term.
As you search for ways to offer benefits that are becoming increasingly relevant and truly speak to the needs of those playing a dual role of employee and caregiver keep these three tactics in mind.
1) Find flexible solutions and hidden gems that benefit caregivers.
Sit down with your clients for a benefit review to uncover any gaps in their program that may not be adequately addressing caregivers’ needs. Also, look for features and services within a current benefit they may not be fully promoting. This could include a telehealth option in their medical coverage, financial education opportunities through a retirement plan or a caregiving referral service offered through a legal insurance plan.
2) Stay on top of current laws and trends.
In response to the pandemic, California has taken several proactive steps to help its residents, including executive orders signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that addresses worker comp protection, eviction moratoriums, sick leave provisions and protections for essential workers.
Also be familiar with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and how it impacts employers and employees. FFCRA requires certain employers to provide workers with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to the coronavirus. The Act also outlines which employees are eligible and the qualifying reasons and duration allowed for a leave.
Understanding which employers are covered and how the paid sick leave provision works will help you consult with clients who may need to beef up their paid leave program to either coincide with FFCRA or be more inclusive for employees. As a barometer, a 2019 WorldatWork survey found that 20% of companies offered paid caregiver leave last year.
3) Take advantage of technology: Employees have become well-acclimated to interacting digitally, whether it’s through online messaging or video calls. So think outside the standard benefit box to offer services ranging from online wellness seminars and EAP sessions to video yoga sessions or lunch dates—it’s an easy and effective way to help employees feel connected—especially those immersed and possibly more isolated in a caregiving situation.
The key is to provide benefits that not only help employees care for a loved one, but solutions that also address a worker’s mental health, because that’s what’s really at stake here. As Morris-Pugliese puts it, “We need to help caregivers take care of themselves. We ask them to remember the standard airline ’oxygen mask‘ directions provided before each flight: put your own mask on first before you can take care of others.” This is your opportunity to provide that direction—and relief—for those employees.
Dennis Healy is a member of the ARAG® executive team. Dennis is a passionate advocate for legal insurance because he has seen firsthand how it helps people receive the protection and legal help they need. He has nearly 30 years of insurance industry experience, with a primary focus on the sale of group voluntary benefit products to employer groups of all sizes through the broker and consultant community.