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January/February 2013 Issue

Benefits of an Eldercare-Friendly Workplace
By Melissa Brown, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 1 P. 32

Barbara, a waitress caring for her mother, explains the challenges she faces in managing work and caregiving: “Well, if I can’t be there or have to leave early, I don’t get paid, that’s for sure. But the other thing is that we are not allowed to have our cell phones on us; we can’t take calls when we are at work. But with my mom being sick, I need to have my phone with me in case I get a call from my mom or someone watching her. I run into the freezer or bathroom to answer the phone, which is ridiculous.”

In a 2008 survey of the U.S. workforce, more than 40% of workers reported having provided unpaid care for a relative aged 65 or older within the past five years (Aumann, Galinsky, Sakai, Brown, & Bond, 2010). As the number of Americans aged 65-plus doubles over the next 20 years, a majority of workers will provide care to an elder relative at some point during their tenure in the workforce.

Unfortunately, the experiences of today’s caregivers who also are working for pay make this a foreboding statistic. Many workers who provide care for an older relative or friend reported significantly poorer physical and mental health than their workforce counterparts without this responsibility, according to a 2010 MetLife survey. Thirty-eight percent of caregivers of older adults who are working for pay reported experiencing depressive symptoms, while 37% reported being stressed “fairly often” or “very often” in the past month, according to unpublished raw data collected as part of the National Study of Changing Workforce 2008.

But the combination of working and caregiving does not have to leave caregivers frazzled and despondent. Providing care to an older family member can be an enriching, meaningful, and positive experience (Marks, 1998). Problems do occur, however, when work responsibilities interfere with the ability to fulfill caregiving responsibilities and vice versa. Caregivers experiencing role conflict often feel as if they are in a no-win situation.

Work-eldercare role conflict can be time, behavior, or strain based (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Time-based work-family conflict occurs when temporal obligations in one role interfere with performance in another role (e.g., missing an important work meeting to take a parent to a medical appointment). Strain-based conflict occurs when the stressors of one role diminish an individual’s ability to meet the demands of the other role (e.g., disrupted sleep caused by an agitated older family member with Alzheimer’s decreases alertness and focus at work). Behavior-based conflict results when the behavioral expectations of one role are contrary to the expectations of the other role (e.g., an attorney providing care for her mother-in-law with dementia finds that she relates poorly to her mother-in-law during trials).

While many caregivers working for pay have had these or similar experiences from time to time, far too many report that they are in a constant state of role conflict, leaving them stressed and overwhelmed, unable to effectively complete their work and caregiving responsibilities.

Real Support, Not Lip Service

“I work for a large Wall Street firm and the attitudes of managers are toxic. They penalize people who have caregiving responsibilities. The human resources department will follow the letter of the law in regard to the Family Medical Leave Act, but you are on your own after that. The culture is one where if you take leave you are in big trouble.” — John

Many employers will find that designing a workplace that supports the needs of caregivers of older adults is a necessity. Estimates indicate that in 2020, more than one-third of employees will be caring for an older adult. Forward-thinking employers have already recognized that supporting their employees with eldercare responsibilities makes good business sense. Providing employees with the resources they need to effectively meet both work and caregiving responsibilities minimizes role conflict, thereby increasing job satisfaction, performance, and retention as well as employee well-being (Greenhaus & Beutell).

First, caregivers need supervisors who recognize and respect that the employee has caregiving responsibilities. It is vital that employees feel comfortable talking to their supervisor about how caregiving may be affecting their work lives. Too often, employees “hide” their caregiving responsibilities out of fear of recrimination.

While a supportive supervisor can go a long way in alleviating stress, organization wide support also is critical to achieving an eldercare-friendly workplace. Support for eldercare at the organizational level includes ensuring that employees have opportunities for advancement, regardless of family responsibilities, as well as creating opportunities for employees to freely discuss their experiences managing work and caregiving. Conversations about eldercare should not happen only “behind closed doors.”

In addition, organizations should ensure that the resources they offer and the messaging used to communicate the availability of these resources is relevant to all employees, including caregivers of older adults. For instance, this could be holding a resource and information program for eldercare services in addition to child care and educating employees that eldercare expenses may be covered under the dependent care flexible spending account.

Caregivers also desire the opportunity to work flexibly, that is, having some control over where and when work gets done (Hill et al, 2008), such as working an alternative schedule (e.g., 8 to 4 rather than 9 to 5), working a compressed work week (e.g., four 10-hour days), and telecommuting. As many employers have learned, providing flexible work options can reduce business costs, as workers allowed to work flexibility are more likely to remain employed with the company, maintain their work hours, and have fewer absences or missed deadlines (Halpern, 2005). Not surprisingly, caregivers who can work flexibly also report less role conflict and lower stress levels.

Interestingly, employees need not utilize flexible work options to benefit from them. Caring for an older adult can be unpredictable, marked by acute crises that can unexpectedly increase caregiving demands either temporarily or permanently. Knowing this resource is available can lessen the anxiety of working caregivers waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop in regard to the health status of their loved one. This also is true for employees who have yet to become caregivers but anticipate that they will be in the coming years.

“I just wish I had more freedom to be more involved in caregiving. When my father was being placed in this new facility, I wanted to be there to help make that transition, get him safely there from home, but I didn’t feel like I should leave my job to do that. I’m sure if I talked to my boss it would have been OK, but technically we aren’t supposed to take vacation for family caregiving.” — Diego

Ultimately, society’s ability to meet the challenges associated with an aging population—and to do so in a manner that honors and respects older adults—depends on ensuring the well-being of caregivers of older adults.

— Melissa Brown, PhD, is a researcher at the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College working on the work-eldercare interface and productive engagement in later life.


Aumann, K., Galinsky, E., Sakai, K. Brown, M., & Bond, J. T. (2010). The Elder Care Study: Everyday Realities and Wishes for Change. New York: Families and Work Institute.

Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. The Academy of Management Review, 10(1), 76-88.

Halpern, D. F. (2005). How time-flexible work policies can reduce stress, improve health, and save time. Stress and Health, 21(3), 157-168.

Hill, E. J., Grzywacz, J. G., Allen, S., et al. (2008). Defining and conceptualizing workplace flexibility. Community, Work & Family, 11(2), 149-163.

Marks, N. F. (1998) Does it hurt to care? Caregiving, work-family conflict, and midlife well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60(4), 951-966.