BY DENNIS HEALY
Even though we’ve left 2021 behind, the level of volatility caused by the greatest workplace disruption in decades lingers, and new COVID-19 variants continue to emerge. It’s caused many businesses to go back to the drawing board again to further tweak their hybrid work plans and get their employees back into the office in some capacity and to help them through whatever’s next.
And, there is a segment of the workforce that continues to struggle under the strain of the pandemic: employees who also serve as caregivers. BCG research reveals that as companies try to bring employees back onsite — despite continuing unknowns of the pandemic, caregivers are feeling more stressed than ever. In fact, those who take care of children or aging parents are 1.4 times more likely to say they are worried about their future at work and their overall well-being than those without such responsibilities.
For them, “return to work” doesn’t necessarily mean a return to normalcy — nor does it signify an end to caring for a loved one. So, how can you help clients provide the types of benefits and services that will best assist employees who are caring for others and that also help to take care of their own mental and physical health?
The pandemic amped up the pressure on caregivers
COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated the family care challenges that many employees still face: stop-start return-to-work arrangements, variant-driven COVID-19 surges, unexpected school and childcare closings and worries around the quality of care for elder family members. It all adds up to a daunting balancing act for the more than 1 in 5 employees in the workforce who are also caregivers.
The pandemic exposed a gnawing gap that many caregivers the majority of which are women continue to have difficulty addressing: getting their work done, caring for an aging adult and managing remote learning arrangements for their children.
Plus, for a middle-aged adult living in the sandwich generation, it makes for quite a full house with many responsibilities to juggle and a lot of burden to shoulder when both employers and family are counting on them. In the end, most caregivers are left feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by not being able to give 100% in any of these roles. As a result, more flexibility and expanded caregiving support benefits will be increasingly sought after in 2022.
On the front lines of caregiving. One person who’s dealt with these scenarios firsthand is Jennifer Morris-Pugliese. She serves as a Care Support Team Manager at CareScout® whose caregiving services are offered to employees via our ARAG® legal insurance plan. Her job is to provide emotional and logistical support during a family’s caregiving journey and to help them make the most informed decisions regarding care needs.
“I’ve seen caregivers in the sandwich generation who are stressed beyond belief,” says Morris-Pugliese. “For them, every little thing is so hard right now; every decision is high stakes. Take, for example, the stress and fatigue that can come from managing an aging parent with dementia, as well as a child that needs to be home from school.”
She adds, “What’s the long-term impact of this stressful time? These caregivers may not be exercising, sleeping, or eating well because they are caring for everyone but themselves. Not to mention postponing their own routine medical care, screenings and follow-ups due to time constraints or continued concerns about COVID-19 transmission.”
Many caregivers are also not prepared for the financial and legal red tape that can come with their role, whether it’s trying to reconcile a loved one’s medical bills or get their financial affairs in order. For example, during the height of the pandemic, ARAG saw increases in common legal issues, like tenant matters and estate planning. Jun Shim, an estate planning attorney with Hermance Law in Santa Clarita and a member of our attorney network, constantly advocates that it’s never too early to start planning ahead.
“We’ve worked with elderly clients where we felt it was necessary to request a medical examination to determine whether they still had legal capacity,” says Shim. “In some cases, they were no longer able to fully understand the nature and effect of the legal document or action they were working on, and their children needed to go through an additional conservatorship process for their parents. This means devoting more time, effort and expense to an already difficult situation.” Shim adds, “I have also seen an increase in cases from existing clients who served as caregivers and are seeking assistance after their elderly loved ones passed away. It is already challenging having to manage your own affairs during the pandemic but the added emotional stress and oftentimes (without a proper legal plan in place) a long court process can make it even more difficult for the families involved.”
Exploring benefits that care for the caregiver. These dramatic changes brought on by the pandemic have driven greater focus on innovative benefit plan design and expansion that recognizes caregivers’ shifting and growing challenges.
For your clients, there are opportunities to answer this call but still work to do. According to a 2021 Employee Caregiving Survey from Homethrive, 79% of employers are not yet offering employee benefits that support caregivers or are not communicating enough about said benefits. Yet, the vast majority (84%) of respondents were receptive to the idea of their employer offering a benefit that provided them with resources, guidance or support for caregiving.
As you help clients search for ways to offer benefits that are becoming increasingly relevant and truly speak to caregivers’ needs, keep these five tactics in mind:
1) Be creative in developing programs that support caregivers.
As you review benefits with clients, first, uncover any gaps in the existing program that may not be adequately addressing caregivers’ needs. Then, brainstorm creative ways to offer support like flexible work arrangements, a concierge service to run errands or childcare arrangements. Also, look for features and services within a current benefit and communicate its availability to employees. This could include a telehealth option in medical coverage, financial education opportunities through a retirement plan, or a caregiving referral service offered through a legal insurance plan.
2) Stay current on state and federal laws, provisions and trends. It’s key to know the status of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), including which provisions have expired and which have recently been enacted, such as the requirement for medical plans to cover the costs of over-the-counter COVID-19 Tests. Such provisions could give caregivers added flexibility and financial relief. An additional resource, COVID19.CA.GOV, outlines current safety measures and past restrictions in the state of California.
3) Encourage caregivers to take time off to care for others — and themselves. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year so that a worker can use the time off to care for an immediate family member, such as a newborn, spouse, child or parent. Conversely, consider offering paid family leave for all caregivers and encourage all parents to take full advantage of their leave. For example, based on employee feedback, Levi Strauss now offers employees a paid caregiver leave benefit. Yet, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey found that only 23% of civilian workers had access to paid family leave.
4) Take advantage of technology. Employees have become well-acclimated to interacting digitally, whether it’s through online messaging or video calls. So, think outside of the traditional benefits you offer and work to provide services ranging from online wellness seminars and EAP meetings to on-demand yoga sessions or lunch dates. Technological advances make it easier to help employees feel connected, making a positive impact on their stress levels – especially those immersed in a caregiving situation.
5) Create a supportive environment. Leaders can create a positive team environment, where the caregiver’s voice is heard, and their concerns can be expressed. Conduct surveys and focus groups to take the pulse of caregivers and what weighs most heavily on them. Employee resource groups, like those for working parents for example, can serve as an organic, interactive outlet for employees to have a voice within an organization and become advocates for each other and causes they believe in.
Ultimately, what’s the key to answering the caregivers’ call? As Morris-Pugliese points out, “Flexibility from employers is crucial right now. In addition to feeling pulled in multiple directions as caregivers for aging parents, children and themselves, workers are also trying to be responsible employees. Having employers communicate that family comes first is one thing. Having employers that put policies and benefits in place to achieve a family-first mindset is another.”
The key is to provide benefits that not only help employees care for a loved one, but also support a worker’s physical and mental well-being, because that’s what’s really at stake here.
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 brokers and consultant community. https://www.araglegal.com