Employee Caregiving in a COVID-19 World: What You Need to Know

Remember the greatest work-from-home interruption of all time on live TV?

In 2017, this video of political analyst Robert Kelly’s kids bursting into the room while he was live on the BBC instantly catapulted him to internet fame. Today, for companies whose employees have the ability telecommute, it’s the new normal.

To combat the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have a majority of their workforce working from home. While watching children pop up on calls is making it hard to miss that most employees are also caregivers, what most companies are overlooking are the hidden costs and business impacts of ignoring employees’ care responsibilities, especially in a COVID-19 world.

Who cares? Nearly everybody. A study by the Harvard Business School (HBS) on managing the future of work revealed that even before the pandemic, as many as 73% of employees had some form of care responsibilities, not just to children, but also to elder relatives and other loved ones. And yet, most companies don’t realize that a lack of caregiver-friendly policies has significant hidden costs.

Amidst the near-daily changes that the pandemic presents, it’s tempting to shrug off caregiving policies and think about them on a good day. But when you look more closely at the data, the reality is that companies that don’t act may open themselves up to the risk of not only reduced productivity but also the possibility of losing their highest-contributing and hardest-to-find employees.

Below, we’ll cover the costs of remaining indifferent to the caregiving needs of employees, and what you can do to help create a "care culture" in your organization.

What most employers are missing about caregivers

Caregiving is hard. Without employer support, caregiving employees struggle to balance the demands of work with care responsibilities, which are recurring, often unexpected, and require immense mental, physical, and financial resources. However, few businesses are aware of how caregiving affects their employees. Consider that while more than 80% of employees with care responsibilities surveyed by HBS admitted that caregiving affects their productivity, only 24% of employers recognized this fact.

The U.S Census Bureau estimates that by 2030, the number of seniors will be greater than the number of children. As the older share of the population increases, they will require the help of family and friends, falling in the working-age population, to provide assistance and care for chronic illnesses or age-related challenges.

Shockingly, nearly one-third of employees quit their job due to caregiving responsibilities. And nearly half of these were senior executives, who are among the company’s most valuable employees.

In addition, employees belonging to certain demographics have more intensified care responsibilities. Single-parent households are becoming more common, and LGBTQ+ employees often provide care not just to families of origin, but also to networks of friends and families of choice.

But most importantly, we are living through a once-in-a-century public health crisis. Beyond managing their own challenges, employees have to stay vigilant about the health of seniors and immunocompromised friends or family, look after children, and support the mental health of loved ones, especially those under increased emotional duress. Until a reliable vaccine is developed and administered to the population, caregiving will be a constant in the daily lives of most employees. Employers can either adapt or bear the costs.

Why should you support your caregiving employees?

High turnover, especially among top contributors

Generally speaking, a lack of care infrastructure directly leads to employee turnover, causing companies to bear the costs of finding and training replacements, the sunk costs of the previous hire, and the additional adjustments their absence creates through overtime work.

It’s an even bigger concern when it affects the organization’s most experienced and highly valued employees. According to the same HBS study, senior executives formed nearly half (49%) of the group of employees that left their company due to a lack of support for their care responsibilities, followed by 35% of middle-level managers.

The loss of these employees is especially damaging to a company. Not only are senior executives harder to replace, but their exit also takes away valuable experience and talent from the organization and leaves other colleagues demoralized.

Younger employees are disproportionately impacted

In addition, younger employees (aged 26 to 35 years) are more likely than older employees to quit because of an absence of support for caregivers. Even when caregiving employees stay on, not having support can undermine their ability to do their best work. Once again, younger and higher-ranking employees report greater difficulty. 88% of young employees at senior or middle-management levels said that their caregiving responsibilities affected their ability to do their best at work.

Existing stigmas may lead to underreporting

While the data is already compelling in its own right, the reality is that given the ways that caregiving has been perceived in the workplace, employees struggling the most are among the least likely to correctly report the difficulties they’re facing.

59% of employees reported that colleagues with care responsibilities are perceived to be less committed to their careers than their non-caregiving counterparts. Additionally, about half admitted that caregiving employees are less likely to progress at the same rate as others, regardless of effort. Given this stigma, the impact on employees might be even greater than you think.

So how might employers start supporting their employees with caregiving responsibilities in a more compelling manner?

5 ways to support employees with care responsibilities

Empathize and communicate with caregivers

Company leaders should create a culture that empathizes with the challenges of caregiving—in other words, a care culture. Before they can access any help or caregiving benefits, your employees need to know that they will not be penalized for openly seeking help with their care responsibilities. Encourage managers to check in with caregivers to understand how best they can be supported.

Measure caregiving-related company data

Most employers don’t gather information on their employees’ care responsibilities and related needs, measure the impact of care demands on their workforce, or track the utilization and effectiveness of the care-related benefits they offer. But to build an impactful care infrastructure, your company will want a clear picture of your care demographics, hidden costs, and the effectiveness of benefits offered.

Provide benefits that employees actually care about

Often, there is a misalignment between what benefits employers think employees want and what they truly want. For instance, the HBS survey found that 78% of employees cited caregiver provider-referral services as being “very important” to their decision to remain with a company. But only 38% of employers offered this benefit.

The problem here is that companies are making decisions about benefits without measuring their care demographics or consulting employees. As a result, they miss out on benefits that could be rolled out at lower costs and yet have a greater impact. As an example, close to 70% of employees rated caregiving support groups and networks "very important" for retention. But less than 40% of employers indicated this benefit could be effective.

To use resources efficiently, consider asking employees what benefits would be valuable to them and then work towards providing these. You can also think about testing the effectiveness of new benefits through a pilot before deploying them widely.

Encourage employees to use caregiver benefits

Even when companies offer benefits, employees can be hesitant to use benefits because they fear negative repercussions on their careers. Make your employees aware of the benefits you offer and encourage them to use these! Senior managers can lead the way: when senior management uses caregiving benefits, other employees are encouraged to follow suit.

Develop strategies to enable caregivers’ performance

Benefits are only a part of an overall support strategy for employees with care responsibilities. You need to respond to the specific care-related challenges of your caregiving employees with policies and programs that address their needs. For instance, onboarding programs for employees returning from caregiving-related leaves can help them get up-to-speed quickly and perform better.

Building a thoughtful support strategy for caregivers has to be a priority for any business leader looking to create a truly inclusive, equitable, and resilient organization. Caregiving is the new normal. Companies that understand this will create the conditions that enable each of their employees to do their best work, despite the challenges thrown at them by a changing world.

Sanya Sharma is a writer and researcher who covers cutting-edge innovation in HR and technology. In addition to writing, she assists social sector organizations with projects in gender and healthcare. She is passionate about creating an equitable world inside and outside of the workplace.