N.H.'s Changing Workforce: Elder care and the corporate bottom line

For decades, dual-income couples and single parents have walked the child-care tightrope thankful for the increase in understanding and support that began to grow among employers nearly 20 years ago. Today’s aging workforce and an increasing elderly population is once again bringing the demands of family caregiving into the workplace spotlight.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, one in five workers balances work and elderly caregiving responsibilities – numbers that are expected to grow as individuals continue to live longer, the number of dual-income families increases and family sizes remain small.

More than 12 percent of New Hampshire’s population is over 65, making the Granite State the sixth oldest in the nation. And, while workers are feeling the strain of balancing work and elder care, so too are the state’s employers.

“We have a double-sided coin here,” said Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP and co-author of “Caring for Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide.”

“There is no question that employees are impacted both emotionally and economically. We know there is a set of behavior changes that people in this position undergo and workers find themselves taking time off, leaving work early or arriving late. Many take a leave of absence, turn down promotions or cut back their hours.”

Over time, all of this takes a financial toll on workers charged with caring for an elderly loved one. Decreased earnings translate into less savings and smaller pensions or 401(k) accounts and put today’s workers at risk of being financially unprepared for their own twilight years.

Financially speaking, today’s rising elder-care needs should be of no less concern for employers. According to Ginzler, elder care by employees now costs American businesses $33.6 billion in productivity each year.

“Absenteeism, workday interruptions, even what we call presenteeism – when someone is at work but is focused on other things – all impact productivity,” said Ginzler. “Add to this the cost of recruiting and retraining new employees as people leave their jobs to care for a parent full time and the economic impact on businesses is staggering.”

But the news for businesses is not all bad. Opportunities exist for those employers who recognize the caregiving needs of their employees and choose to take a proactive approach. And the companies that rise to the challenge will become the first choice among skilled, capable workers charged with caring for aging loved ones.

What can employers do?

The first step in addressing the elder-care needs of employees may be recognizing the issue exists and taking a proactive approach that enables overtaxed employees to better manage job and family responsibilities.

“In doing things like creating a flexible workplace and providing assistance and information, employers can address their own bottom line while meeting the needs of their employees,” Ginzler said.

“Employers have taken a lot of these steps with child care. Child care is now watercooler conversation. We’re now recognizing this same need for flexibility across the life span.”

Flexibility in the workplace can take on many forms. Among the options are allowing paid sick leave and family leave to be used for the care of an elderly parent, flex time, flexible scheduling, job-sharing and telecommuting.

In addition to allowing flexible work arrangements, employers can create their own resource guides, making information readily available at the work site, thus eliminating, or at least reducing, the need for employees to take time away from work to hunt down needed support or resources, said Ginzler

Brown bag lunch sessions also can be useful, she said. Representatives from support services and agencies charged with addressing eldercare needs are often willing to speak at gatherings.

On-site support groups are another good way of disseminating information and providing emotional support to stressed employees.

“These are low-cost things that work,” Ginzler said. “And employers are finding that it is in their best interest to institute some of these things. Employers recognize the fact that recruiting and maintaining a seasoned and capable workforce may be challenging as the age demographics begin to shift and by becoming a company that is recognized for being flexible and meeting the needs of their employees they are that much more appealing to the pool of workers that does exist.”

Government-sponsored mortgage giant Fannie Mae is among the small but growing number of companies to take aggressive steps in addressing the needs of caregiving employees.

At Fannie, workers taxed with maneuvering the elder-care maze have access to an on-site care manager capable of providing both support and much-needed information.

According to studies conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management, only 25 percent of employers join Fannie Mae in offering some form of elder-care related benefits. Far fewer have instituted any formal elder-care policy.

The good news is change is coming, said Ginzler. “This is an issue that affects everyone,” she said. “Businesses are beginning to recognize the importance of addressing the needs of their elder-care-giving employees. Businesses are beginning to get this. They’re beginning to get on board.”

N.H.’s Changing workforce series is a partnership between NHBR and AARP New Hampshire.