Caring for the Caregivers at Work

Posted by: Christie Lanasa
Date: January 25, 2016

Larry (identity changed) was a single father who shared with me a terrifying experience he had recently. You see, Larry went into a diabetic coma, and was fortunately found by another family member who contacted emergency medical services. While speaking with him, the nurse and health coach in me wondered if this hard working father had noticed any early warning signs in his body prior to this dangerous event. How did he feel? What were the circumstances that lead to the coma?

Larry shared with me that he was carrying a tremendous amount of responsibility at home in addition to his full time job. As well as being a devoted employee, he was also caring for a family member (his son) who had been hit by a car while crossing the street. His son was discharged by the hospital and now needed 24-hour help. While running his child to and from doctor appointments, he barely had time to eat, much less notice the signs of rapidly dropping blood sugar. Thankfully another person stepped in and called an ambulance for Larry.

Larry is not alone. A lot of people holding down a job have family members with health issues that are temporary, or not going to get better. Just about every parent has had to deal with a child who wakes up in the morning with the flu on a workday, but some employees have spouses and other relatives who require long term care. Many people are caught in the “sandwich generation;” a term for people who still have kids at home, plus they are responsible for their own parents or in-laws with health issues.

According to an American Psychological Association study, caregivers are at added risk for health problems, such as “increased mortality, coronary heart disease and stroke.” They tend to report higher rates of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression and are overweight. Caregivers also experience stress related symptoms such as insomnia, overeating/selecting junk food, or skipping meals more than the general population. In addition to having more health risks, they are less likely to get preventive care. As the caregiver’s health declines, they can become stuck in a vicious cycle where they manage stress in unhealthy ways and seemingly insurmountable barriers prevent them from making the lifestyle or behavioral changes necessary for good health. These caregivers have the most to do, and they are often sacrificing themselves to do it.

Another stress for caregivers that is often present is financial worries and fear of losing their job. These individuals are often experienced, hardworking individuals who are wearing themselves out to satisfy employers and family responsibilities. This is becoming a significant health crisis among Americans.

What can employers do to retain these employees and support the health of these overwhelmed parents, spouses, or children with caregiving responsibilities of home?

  • Gather information: Perhaps offer an anonymous survey to find out about the specific needs of your employee population. Recognize embarrassment about the neglect of their own health or fear of job loss may be an obstacle to requesting help. Encourage sensitive communication about challenges facing your employees, but protect their privacy.
  • Offer flexible work schedules and other creative solutions, such as allowing employees to work from home. There may be job sharing scenarios in which two part-time employees cover a full-time job, but both retain health benefits. In our company, people can donate PTO to a coworker in need. Review all family related policies for how they accommodate new parents, family crises, etc.
  • Design a healthy work environment with opportunities for nutritious meals and snacks, places to exercise and rest, and onsite preventive care.
  • Provide programs such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), support groups, exercise classes or clubs, and educational seminars about health, stress management, preventive care, navigating insurance and other benefits. BeneFIT Corporate Wellness offers Preferred EAP to employers, a service that gives employees access to free counseling. Preferred EAP works with overwhelmed caregivers to help them sort out all kinds of family crises and work challenges.
  • Supply information about Family Medical Leave, EAPs, health benefits, and community resources (respite eldercare and childcare, for example), in a way that is easily accessible and confidential.

Caregivers who feel supported do a much better job coming up with strategies to manage and recover from stress, and avoid depression. An employer who is seen as compassionate to caregivers will increase morale, retain the most experienced employees, and possibly reduce health care costs in the long run as the caregivers and their families optimize their health.

To learn more about best practices to support the health of your employees, please contact us.

Unifying & Retaining Employees