Case study: Caregivers
Supporting caregivers in the workforce, as we discuss in our work/life balance section of “Defining an Inclusive Culture,” is one key to attracting and keeping skilled workers. For example, in many cases, families require two incomes to subsist, meaning both parents in a two-parent household are in the workforce. For single parents, all care and financial responsibilities fall on their shoulders, placing demands on their time and emotional resources. Other caregivers may be responsible for disabled family members, including disabled adults, elderly parents, or dependents whom they care for part time. This can put caregivers in a difficult situation when dependents need their care and attention. Forcing them to choose between their caregiving needs and their career is an impossible and unreasonable expectation.
Workplace considerations for supporting caregivers, depending on company size, should include: flexible parental and adoptive leave paired with assurance of job security; sick time to care for children, sometimes over a long period; daycare, preschool, and other childcare options provided at work or through subsidies; lactation rooms and other workplace supports for new mothers; parenting Employee Resource Groups; compassionate leave to support caregivers who are responsible for elderly parents and/or disabled family members; flexible scheduling for those who need to coordinate their schedules with aides and personal care assistants; and the ability to access time off in order to participate in and support the activities of their dependents.
Businesses may be wary of possible fiscal and productivity costs if they offer paid leave for caregivers, and may also be wary of time lost on a project. However, policies geared toward a positive work-life balance contribute to all employees having a general sense that they are valued, and improve overall productivity. An employee who feels secure and supported in their job has a higher productivity rate than stressed and worried counterparts. This results in lower turnover, less money spent onboarding new talent, and better productivity overall. While a full range of caregiver benefits may not be feasible at a small startup, they should be part of a diversity and inclusion framework so they can expand as the company grows.
Joseph is a mid-level programmer in a 100-person company. He has been with the company for about a year, and has a two-year-old daughter, Susie. Her daycare closes at 5:30pm, and Joseph must leave the office at 5:00pm to ensure that he arrives on time to collect her. If Joseph — the only parent who is able to collect her from daycare — arrives late to pick Susie up, the daycare charges by the minute, and he is uncomfortable with leaving Susie as the last child waiting for her parent.
The typical work day for engineers on the team varies from person-to-person, with some team members arriving after 10:00am and leaving late in the evening. But not everyone comes in late and stays late, and Joseph was clear when he joined the team that he would not be able to stay in the office after 5:00pm. Ola, his manager, has started to notice that as the team is getting closer to a major deadline, they are holding difficult technical discussions later in the day. Sometimes, Joseph seems torn as he leaves ongoing team discussions to pick up Susie from daycare. At their regular 1:1 meeting, Joseph confides that he’s getting frustrated as he is the only one on the team with a hard stop time when he must leave the office.
He says he’s feeling peer pressure to stay at the office later, which is compounding the stress of the looming deadline. Ola recognizes that this situation is not ideal, and decides to talk to the team about trying to have these discussions earlier in the day when possible. She also assures Joseph that she understands his need to leave on time, and is clear that she does not see his schedule having a negative impact on his performance. Ola gently reminds Joseph that sometimes, there will be conversations he will miss in the evenings, just as sometimes the early birds on the team work through problems before the later arrivals are in the office. This is natural for their team dynamic.
What NOT to do
Ola should not use language or implied ultimatums that place Joseph in a situation where he feels he must choose between the company and his child, or imply that his dedication to parenting and caregiving undermines his ability to be a successful and loyal employee.
Ola should not comment to him or to other members of the team questioning his commitment, or compare non-parent employees to Joseph and other employees with dependents.
If Joseph is married, Ola should not assume that his spouse is female and the primary caregiver for their child and thus available to collect Susie. Joseph’s partner may not necessarily be a woman, and if she is, she likely faces the common and inaccurate assumption that she is expected to choose between raising families and developing her career. More and more often, men are taking on the primary or an equal caregiving role.
What TO do
Ola should ask about how to support Joseph in achieving an equitable work-life balance that will allow him to care for his child while also meeting his work obligations. She may have suggestions or ideas for accommodations that could help him as well as other caregivers in the workplace. While discussing the situation, she should acknowledge that Susie is an important priority for Joseph, but that he’s also clearly committed to his job, and the company is eager to help him. She should emphasize that the company and the team value him and his contributions.
Ola may consider suggesting core hours and blocks for meeting schedules to ensure that everyone is able to attend. Blackout blocks at the very beginning and end of the day to accommodate caregivers who may need to come in later or leave on time will help them feel more welcome. Blocking schedules for teams operating across multiple time zones can be a challenge, but can be solved by providing predictability for planning coverage, or by allowing calls from home.
Offering Joseph flextime options, including a work schedule that allows for coming in and leaving work earlier each day, or working remotely one or more days a week when he doesn’t need to be in the office, can also help. In cases where extra work is required to meet deliverable deadlines, providing ample warning to caregivers and discussing potential accommodations so they can meet their work obligations and care for their dependents will help them feel more included. Managers should set out expectations from the start and establish the best solutions for caregivers to help them contribute to the team.
Be aware that non-caregivers may believe caregivers are being treated with favoritism or given unfair advantages in the workplace. Managers should emphasize to all employees that flexibility, mutual respect, and accommodations are key for all employees, and that they add to the value and productivity of the company. Ola should make non-caregivers aware of options available to them for taking leave, making schedule adjustments, and addressing demands on their own work-life balance if they are feeling stressed. If teammates continue to question Joseph’s dedication or claim that he is being given special treatment, Ola should remind them that work/life balance is important for everyone and good for the company, and those kinds of comments are not appropriate.
Ola should announce changes to policies as a side note to an already scheduled meeting or town hall to minimize drawing attention to caregivers, rather than issuing company-wide notices that may make them feel like they’re in the spotlight.
Ultimately, a company is made up of its people, and its people are individuals with their own sets of stressors, needs, and goals. Steps like work-life balance policies that support everyone can benefit staff and company morale and ultimately the bottom line. Caregivers add considerable value to a company, and family-friendly companies can attract new, motivated talent. At some point in their careers, most employees are likely to face a caregiving burden, and are likely to appreciate a company that offers flexible policies and work-life balance.