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What employers can do to reduce burnout among working caregivers

By Rachael McCann Jones | September 9, 2021

Employers can continue to evolve their support for working caregivers and help avoid burnout and departure through thoughtfulness and a multifaceted approach.
Health and Benefits|Inclusion-and-Diversity|Employee Experience|Benessere integrato|Work Transformation
Risque de pandémie

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many curveballs — and some of the trickiest have been aimed at working caregivers. With four million workers leaving their jobs in the U.S. in April alone, many organizations are experiencing what some describe as “the great resignation.” How many of these resignations were the result of working caregivers unable to cope with the increased demands of both work and family? How many ignored their own self-care because they had to focus on caring for others? How many adopted bad health habits in response to stress and lack of sleep? How many told their managers that “burnout is real” before resigning, sometimes without another job lined up?

To understand where we are today, it’s important to reflect back to the start of COVID-19. In early 2020, we saw employers begin to focus on the needs of working caregivers to avoid a drop in productivity. But, as the pandemic spread, working caregivers were left to arrange or provide care for their loved ones as childcare centers, schools and public resources closed or operated at reduced capacity. COVID-19 also quickly spread through nursing homes, leaving families to struggle with decisions on where their loved ones should reside.

The resulting stress and strain made it difficult to meet the demands of work, distance learning and caregiving, with two-thirds of employers saying increased caregiving demands is the driver of mental health issues for their employees. What’s more, employees may have not felt comfortable talking to their managers about just how hard it was, how much they were struggling — particularly if there was uncertainty around their jobs.

The reality is that employers relied on schools and care centers just as much as employees did to keep people at work and productive.

The reality is that employers relied on schools and care centers just as much as employees did to keep people at work and productive. When the reliability of these services was pulled from all of us, it highlighted how much a comprehensive plan for caregivers was needed.

Employers tactical response

Employers sought to address the needs of working caregivers based on their understanding of employee needs, their industry and business demands, as well as broader financial constraints. Some leaned on employee assistance program (EAP) resources to provide counseling, educational resources and caregiver referrals. Some promoted employee resource groups (ERGs) to encourage employees to support each other and share ideas and advice. Others provided financial support through paid emergency backup care days, as well as paid caregiving leave.

These methods were largely tactical in nature and were short-term fixes to provide care support for a block of hours; they were not meant to address the building stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and other feelings that working caregivers were experiencing. Few employers implemented genuinely holistic caregiving resources that helped the employees navigate the broad range of situations they were dealing with, and few provided emotional support for the caregiver.

Paid parental leave has seen the largest increase in actions taken or planned by employers:
Employers are considering more actions to support families

*Note: companies with at least 1,000 employees. Source: 2019 and 2021 Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey

from 55% of employers providing in 2019, to 85% planning to provide by 2023.

With the emergence of the Delta variant, the hope for life returning to normal has dimmed — and again, this is particularly true for working caregivers. With the variant spreading more quickly among the unvaccinated including children, new breakout cases emerging in the already vaccinated, and the U.S. vaccination rate remaining far below levels needed for herd immunity, we are not even close to a steady state.

Just a few of the difficult considerations that may be top of mind for working caregivers include:

Masking indoors for all — even the vaccinated — and limiting exposure:

How will families deal with mask mandates as well as dealing with quarantine requirements? What is the best way to protect our children, adults and elderly loved ones?

Returning to the workplace being continually delayed, hybrid approaches redefined and vaccination mandates becoming more commonplace:

How can working caregivers meet the expectations of work and home, especially when guidance changes daily?

The concerns of parents of school-aged children:

How can working caregivers cope with weighing the risk of COVID-19 transmission that comes with in-person learning, versus remote instruction when it is an option? How will these measures influence their children’s emotional and social health as well as learning loss? And where in-person instruction is not possible, who will support virtual learning and care during the day?

COVID-19 or the flu:

What does in-person working, learning or facility living look like as we enter cold and flu season? What about the added stress of worrying an illness might be COVID-19 or the flu? Does quarantining or staying home become a reality with a sniffle or sneeze

of employees indicating they feel anxious or depressed, according to the 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey

Employers can play an important role in addressing caregivers’ needs. A good place to start are these six actions below that will not only address the stressors of working caregivers but also help to reduce the great resignation of working caregivers:

  1. Talk to business leaders and employees, test thinking and then make decisions:
    • Leaders: Start or continue the dialog with leaders on what is required to successfully operate the business, and test for optimal flexibility. Use what your employees tell you to develop policies that enable worker productivity and support employee wellbeing, thereby furthering both organization and individual needs. Such an approach allows for attracting new talent, especially those who may have left another employer in search of stronger support for their caregiver needs.
    • Employees: Don’t assume. Ask your employees what they need. Without direct comments and perspectives from your employees, you are assuming what they need and how those needs may differ by location, role, income, gender, race, multigenerational household, etc. These conversations with employees, even with ERGs, can influence not just resources and benefits, but also education, communication and needs for manager training.
  2. Use data to tell the story: Create a picture and narrative of your workforce, including those who have children (e.g., benefit coverage, dependent care flexible spending accounts) and/or other caregiving responsibilities. Look to turnover rates (overall and by gender), and roles that have been difficult to fill. Are past high performers struggling to meet goals or job responsibilities? Also, work with your vendors to understand utilization of mental health benefits, EAP visits and referrals, emergency backup dates, or paid and unpaid (caregiver and other) time off and mental health related disability claims. With this data, consider the options available to employees.
  3. Understand caregiver gaps: Leveraging the insights noted above, start identifying gaps. For example, understand if emergency backup care utilization in place is low and why? The same would apply to EAP while mental health claims and absenteeism are on the rise. There could be a gap in caregiving resources that supports emotional health in addition to tactical expert support needed, which could include caregiving leave, formalized flexible work arrangements and other levers.
  4. Train and support managers: Manager onboarding never included how to support employees through a pandemic. Navigating the feelings, struggles and the work/life dynamic is not in most managers’ job description, yet managers play an important role in balancing these factors. Ongoing training, education and support for managers can help them recognize when an employee is in distress. It also helps them find solutions by creating a safer space for employees to discuss their caregiving needs, understanding the associated impact on work and exploring available supports (e.g., EAP, back-up care, concierge caregiving support).
  5. Formalize flexible work policies with leader buy-in: As you define new ways of working, refine and document how your organization can support flexible work. This includes when, where and how employees work, recognizing there may be variation by role. Formal policies and related communication and education for employees, managers and leaders are critical to establishing clear and consistent understanding.
  6. Connect caregiving to your diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy: Employers across all industries have been increasingly focused on DEI, with support of working caregivers playing an important role related to attraction, retention and engagement of diverse talent.

In summary, employers can continue to evolve their support for working caregivers and help avoid burnout and departure. It takes time, thoughtfulness and a multifaceted approach, but the payoff can have real advantages in attracting workers and helping combat “the great resignation.”


Senior Director, Integrated & Global Solutions,
Global DEI Solutions Leader
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