Balancing work and caregiving can be stressful, even if you’ve already taken advantage of resources in your community, such as meal-delivery programs or hospital-based support groups. The good news is that, as a working caregiver, you may be able to get additional support at work, either directly from your workplace or from outside resources that provide services on a contract basis.
Thankfully, employers’ awareness of caregivers’ needs has evolved over the years: Initially, employers began to realize that some workers struggled to find supervision for their children. Next, they became aware of how many workers were responsible for the care of aging parents. These days, increasing numbers of organizations recognize the needs of employees who are caring for spouses or other family members with chronic or long-term illnesses such as cancer.
Acknowledging Your Role
Before approaching your supervisor about possible support, you may need to first acknowledge and accept your caregiving role. Sounds obvious, but researchers say that many who provide hours of care to loved ones recovering from cancer or other ailments don’t identify themselves as caregivers. If you provide ongoing help to someone with cancer — driving them to appointments, helping them weigh various treatment options, supporting them emotionally — you’re definitely a caregiver. Regardless of the number of hours you devote to caregiving in a given week — and it can vary greatly if you are taking care of a loved one with cancer — it can be mentally and physically exhausting, especially when you are also holding down a full-time job.
In fact, a caregiving schedule that varies and/or is unpredictable can be very stressful, since it can make it difficult to plan your work obligations and social life around the caregiving tasks. Either way, you are probably spending more hours than you think caring for your loved one.
Whom to Talk To
Determining whom at your job to approach regarding your caregiving duties — and any potential adjustments to your role that you may need in order to fulfill them — depends on your relationship and comfort level with your immediate supervisor, experts say.
If you’re at ease sharing a request for help with your direct boss, do so. If not, you can contact your company’s human resources department (if one exists). Another option might be an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if your organization participates in one. (See below for more information on EAPs.)
Keep in mind that your supervisor may not be aware of all the services that are available to you. If in doubt, go directly to human resources. HR may also be able to provide referrals to individual counseling or support groups as well as help with matters such as finding respite care or figuring out insurance coverage.
Workplace Policies & Programs for Caregivers
Companies with a large workforce (e.g., 100+ employees) are more likely to have an established program to help employee-caregivers. If you work for a smaller company and/or one where a caregivers program doesn’t exist, all is not lost. If you can design and suggest a flexible work option in which you’re able to get your needs met as a caregiver and still deliver the same level of productivity, both parties win. The key, experts say, is to think through in advance the accommodations you’d like to request, to ensure they impact the rest of the staff as minimally as possible. Easier said than done, but worth the effort in the long run.
Among the options to consider:
- Paid time off (PTO): These programs generally combine all of a worker’s paid time off (such as sick leave, vacation and personal time off) into a single block of time. This can reduce the hassle of having to submit a reason every time you want a day off.
- Working remotely: Basically a work-at-home plan, remote work (whether full-time, part-time or a hybrid blend of in-office and virtual hours) can be a boon for a caregiver, especially if you need to be home in order to assist with things that your loved one isn’t able to manage on their own. Not having to endure a long commute can also save precious hours for caregiving.
- Flextime: Just as a worker with cancer sometimes needs flextime — either taking time out during the day to go to appointments and making up the time later, or varying the start and end times of the workday — so, too, does the caregiver, who often has to deal with transporting loved ones to appointments. The key is to plan ahead for the flextime schedule and be sure the office doesn’t need you during the hours or days you have to be away.
- Leave banks or pools: These are programs wherein employees donate accumulated unused PTO to help caregiving colleagues who have run out of leave time. The days are placed in what is called a “leave bank” or “leave pool,” to be accessed by fellow staffers who need additional time off.
- Employee Assistance Programs: EAPs are work-based intervention programs created to help employees deal with personal issues that may be adversely impacting their job performance, such as alcohol/substance abuse, financial or legal problems, relationship issues, or caring for an elderly or sick loved one. For example, as a caregiver you could ask an EAP staff member to speak with your boss about creating a modified work plan. Given that EAP personnel have likely helped set up various work options before, they can more readily allay your supervisor’s concerns and perhaps answer questions with more clarity and credibility than you might be able to. Programs are offered at the worksite or, more commonly, contracted out to a “full-service” EAP or to various providers. Services, which are confidential and free charge to the employee, are provided via phone, video-based conferencing, email or in person.
Any modified work arrangement (e.g., remote work, flextime) is likely to have both pros and cons. It will be important to address any potential downside with your employer directly and reassure them that neither productivity nor company morale will suffer as a result of the change.
For instance, if you ask for a part-time or full-time remote work arrangement, one challenge may be convincing your boss that you will still be productive while not working from an office with fellow colleagues. Depending on the nature of your job, you might offer to send regular status updates via email or schedule phone or video check-ins. The goal is to maintain your “presence” and deliver tangible proof that you are getting your job done. Note that this may be more of a challenge within a work place that does not yet offer remote opportunities. While employers have become much more open to remote work in recent years, communication is still especially important. (For more tips, see our articles on Working Remotely and our Survival Guide: Balancing Remote Work and Cancer.
Another challenge? You may encounter coworkers who resent your modified schedule because they do not fully understand or appreciate your need for time off. While you don’t have to share all the details of your personal circumstances, providing colleagues with some context (e.g., “I’m dealing with a family issue.” ) may help them to be more sympathetic.
As an increasing number of companies aim to cultivate a “family friendly” culture, including instituting formal caregiver policies, the hope is that such perspectives will change.