Finding a better way to balance careers with caring

Many caregivers struggle with proving care for loved ones while also managing their professional careers. Dreamstime

The Canadian Centre for Caregiving Excellence is studying how workplaces can better support their employees who are caring for loved ones.

She was preparing to return to her job with the federal government in Ottawa after the birth of her second child when Nicole Dauz got a call from her family doctor. Her daughter, Summer, just had her first-year check-up and the doctor wanted to refer her to a neurologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

“Because my son had hit milestones really early, I didn’t want to be ‘that’ parent and compare them,” said Dauz. “She had missed some markers, but I thought, ‘It’s all good, every child develops at different rates.’”

But, as Dauz’s daughter turned 15-months-old, the neurologist diagnosed Summer with a rare genetic disease, intellectual disability and autism that would require immediate intervention and therapy.

“That became my life as a working caregiver,” said Dauz, who began that new role nearly 15 years ago. “It was like living in two different worlds.

“For me, work was a respite. It was where I could be in control. It was where I could be Nicole. I could go to the bathroom by myself and sit down and eat lunch in peace. Those were luxuries — and they still are.”

Dauz, who was in her mid-30s when her daughter was diagnosed, said she was lucky to have a supportive manager at the time who allowed her to work from home once a week to accommodate Summer’s medical appointments and other caregiving needs.

“Yes, policies are very important in corporate culture but at the end of the day it is that person who you report to,” she said. “When people talk about caregiving in the workplace, people think caregivers need more time. And, yes, we need flexibility, but in return you will get a very loyal employee.”

Dauz is among the caregivers who are sharing their experiences in the workplace with the Canadian Centre for Caregiving Excellence (CCCE). Funded by the Azrieli Foundation, which invests in programs that help to empower people so they can achieve their best and contribute to society, the centre is conducting a project to study what needs to be done to create caregiver-friendly workplaces in Canada.

“Balancing work and caregiving is really hard,” said Liv Mendelsohn, executive director of the CCCE. “People want to give their absolute best to their workplace and their team, and they also want to give their best to their family, but workplaces and government policies are not set up to make it possible to do both.”

She said one in four Canadians is currently a caregiver (a statistic she notes will increase to one in two as the population ages) but only 34 per cent of of them receive caregiving support from the government and only 30 per cent of receive support from their employers.

“We don’t do a great job at this, and I don’t think it is because there isn’t the will for it from employers. It is that employers don’t know what to do either. There hasn’t been comprehensive attention on how best to support employees,” she said. “There are about 15 million missed days of work across Canada because of caregiving.

“Workplaces are not set up for the episodic nature of caregiving. Even workplaces that have acknowledged that people may need a leave or some time off are set up to have that happen once. But we know that caregiving — especially over the course of a lifetime — can include a lot of ups and downs and periods of more care or less care.”

Mendelsohn said the project’s research has already shown some employers and countries are ahead of the curve when it comes to how they approaches the needs of their employees to provide care. For example, Centrica, based in the United Kingdom, offers employees 30 days of caregiving leave per year.

From an employee experience, Mendelsohn said, caregiving can have several impacts on careers. She said its research has shown 15 per cent of caregivers have had to reduce their work hours, 10 per cent have to turn down job interviews, and 26 per cent have taken leaves of absence.

“It is missing out on career advancement, missing out on contributions to pension plans and CPP,” she said. “It is probably not a surprise that this is also a gendered phenomenon. Women account for more than half of all caregivers and, consequently, need to take more time off, more time away from work, and that affects them over a course of a lifetime.”

Mendelsohn said the health of caregivers also needs to be considered, noting that 87 per cent of people providing care report feeling isolated, 73 per cent report having anxiety and 69 per cent have reported a deterioration in their mental health.

“Employers need more help to understand how many of their staff are dealing with this,” she said. “I think this is something employees often carry silently. They might tell one or two people on their team or they might not tell anybody. There isn’t a culture in most workplaces of supporting care and understanding that you are no less a valuable and contributing employee if you are caring for someone.”

Despite having supportive bosses for most of her career, Dauz said she has taken two leaves of absence from her work in the years since her daughter was diagnosed — a six-month and a two-month period. She said she felt guilty both times and was worried how she would be judged by her colleagues. But her body needed the rest.

“Some caregivers are scared to tell their bosses that they are caregivers because they are worried that they will be overlooked for promotions and that they will be seen differently,” she said. “Caregivers at work can feel very invisible.

Originally published in the Toronto Star. View the original article here.