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How to keep employees productive: Support caregivers

Three-quarters of US employees are balancing caregiving with their careers. If companies could prevent five of them from quitting, they could save $200,000. Joseph Fuller offers a seven-point plan for supporting the sandwich generation and beyond

Published: Jan 29, 2024 12:14:30 PM IST
Updated: Jan 29, 2024 12:22:54 PM IST

How to keep employees productive: Support caregiversFuller’s latest Managing the Future of Work report guides organizations in supporting work-life balance for caregivers. Image: Shutterstock

In December 2023, Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah made headlines with a blunt company-wide email: “Working long hours, being responsive, blending work and life, is not anything to shy away from … There is not a lot of history of laziness being rewarded with success.”

The missive followed a series of layoffs. Ostensibly, Shah was trying to refocus employees.

New research from Harvard Business School Professor Joseph B. Fuller offers a different take. When workers feel tension between their work and private lives, they’re likely to quit or be less productive.

Fuller’s latest Managing the Future of Work report guides organizations in supporting work-life balance for caregivers. Fuller finds that there are strong incentives to support these employees with benefits; payoffs include lower turnover and less absenteeism.

Instead of urging people to show up more, an employer should ask: “Why don’t I understand why they’re not showing up?” says Fuller, who co-chairs the Project on the Workforce at Harvard.

The good news: As more leaders move into the sandwich generation and care for aging parents while raising children, the more chance that the issue will become mainstream. “One of the reasons we see senior executives being the big sponsors of caregiving benefits is because they’ve lived it,” Fuller says, offering a seven-point plan for managers who want to follow suit.

The case for supporting caregivers

Three out of four US workers have caregiving roles. Fuller reports that 50 percent of workers between the ages of 26 and 35 and about 30 percent between the ages of 36 and 45 say that caregiving negatively affected their career.

Businesses in the United States incur more than $1 trillion in costs annually due to turnover. Many of these workers want family-related perks: A survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson found that 40 percent of employees desire family-related assistance, with preference for expanded family leave, bereavement leave or assistance, and additional maternity leave.

Companies can attract and retain talent by investing in and maintaining family-friendly policies, Fuller says—and every little bit counts.

Fuller found that, if caregiving support prevented five employees from quitting, it would save the company $200,000. That math assumes the employees earn an average of $80,000 and carry a replacement cost of 50 percent. Fuller used data from 97 clients of caregiver-support benefits company Wellthy over an almost two-year period to arrive at the conclusions. Overall, he found fairly modest reductions in resignation and absentee rates yielded a very attractive return on investment for employers.

“Only when the company has all the data required to do a proper return-on-investment analysis can it understand the extent of the caregiving challenges facing their workforce,” Fuller warns.

Also read: Are you ready for the "longevity economy"?

How COVID-19 changed the caregiving landscape

For years, caregiving wasn’t discussed on the job. Taking a child to the doctor or visiting mom at a nursing home was furtively wedged between meetings and deadlines.

Shifts to remote work and flexible hours during early pandemic lockdowns, for example, made care obligations less secretive. But it might not persist: About 50 percent of employers plan to continue offering backup childcare or elder care, and only 44 percent plan to continue to offer paid sick days, according to the report.

Why are companies reluctant to maintain these benefits? Fuller attributes it to outdated management policies that are more suited to the assembly lines of the Industrial Age than today’s post-industrial information economy.

How companies can meet the need

Fuller offers seven tips for companies looking to support caregivers.

  1. Understand the true costs of benefits. Not shockingly, most companies would like to reduce costs. Reducing benefits might seem like a low-stakes way to do so. That is backward: Companies should calculate the economic impact of offering caregiving benefits, such as reductions in turnover and absenteeism. Why risk losing high-level, proficient employees due to temporary work-life imbalances?
  2. Gather more information about your workforce’s care demographics. Childcare benefits are often wasted on older workers; transportation subsidies might not matter to remote employees. Shrewd organizations tailor benefits to workers’ roles and demographics. An essential frontline urban worker needs different support than a remote, rural one.
  3. Audit caregiving services and get feedback from employees who use them. Many employers look at the low utilization of the caregiving services they currently offer and wrongly assume that caregiving services in general are of limited importance to their workers. But low utilization can result from the benefits being unattractive, misaligned with the employee-base’s needs, or poorly promoted in the organization. Companies should analyze the utilization of caregiving services and investigate what makes a benefit popular or unpopular.
  4. Go beyond EAPs. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) aren't substitutes for care benefits. Most EAPs provide little more than access to service representatives, who can answer questions about benefits and support services. Caregiving benefits that directly connect employees with care resources, Fuller says, are the key to reducing turnover and absenteeism.
  5. Monitor why workers might plan to leave. It would seem illogical to encourage employees to reflect on why they might resign. But sensitive and empathetic inquiries can unearth pain points for the organizations, Fuller says. “You can make this a conversation. Teach your supervisors and executives to ask: ‘What would cause you to leave the firm? Are we doing what we need to keep you happy here?’ That may reveal that someone has caregiving responsibilities that limit their scheduling flexibility; maybe they fear that revealing that they have a special needs child may undermine their chances for promotion. Now you’ve got data,” he advises.
  6. Revisit job descriptions, career paths, and managerial incentives. Companies often rely on outdated job descriptions that don’t reflect modern life, Fuller says. Caregivers might self-select out of jobs that require frequent travel, unpredictable hours, or multiple relocations. Companies should weigh which requirements truly matter.
  7. Foster a culture in which caregiving is openly discussed. “This is about transparency, but also expressing empathy and interest—and a tremendous amount of this starts at the top,” Fuller says.

[This article was published with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge<a target="_blank" href="></a>]