No doubt, the American workplace could use a serious overhaul when it comes to accommodating the fact workers have lives outside of the job. The United States, after all, is the only country in the developed world without a national maternity leave policy and one of thirteen countries in the world that does not guarantee paid time off. Yes, we have the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), however many workers are not eligible for that benefit and even when they are it is still unpaid leave.
But we don’t have to wait for a massive fix to start making working and family responsibilities more compatible. Businesses can take some simple steps now to support employees who are caring for family members. Here are 6 surprisingly simple ways to make your workplace more caregiver-friendly:
1. Offer flexible work schedules. According to a survey conducted by Zenefits, an HR software company, 30 percent of small businesses don’t offer any flexible work benefits. But you can bet 100 percent of the people employed by those businesses have work/life conflicts at some point. Flexibility is critical for caregivers – and pretty good for employers too. It allows us to shift our hours to accommodate a home health aide’s schedule or take a few hours off to bring our parents to the doctor instead of taking the entire day off. It gives us the breathing space we need to accommodate two critical needs – earning a living and caring for our family.
2. Create and communicate flex policies. As important as offering flexibility, is creating a clear policy around that benefit and then communicating it to employees. The same Zenefits survey revealed “53% of employees say there’s no official flexible work policy in place.” As the report states, “A lack of an official policy might sound insignificant, but it could be a big problem when it comes to ensuring proper use of these arrangements or even reminding workers of what opportunities are available to them.”
3. Understand benefits and train managers too. Likewise, managers should understand the benefits available to caregiving employees. Don’t assume because there is a policy in a handbook, that your managers know how to access or apply it. Heck, don’t even assume because a policy is printed in the handbook that it is correct. I once had to tell a CEO, “No, I am not eligible for FMLA because your company isn’t eligible.” And yet, it was offered as an option in the handbook.
4. Apply benefits equally to childcare, eldercare, spousal care, etc. (Talk about them equally too!) Workers who take time off to care for an adult family member – whether a few hours, a few days, or a few months, often feel “othered” in the workplace. They are the ones taking time off with no advance notice. They are the ones making hushed personal calls at their desks. Their personal stressors and responsibilities are often invisible to the rest of the company. The answer to this isolation isn’t to share their personal business, of course, but rather to normalize all types of care. Think about it; most companies celebrate maternity leaves with a cake and a baby shower. Do they then bemoan eldercare leave because of the hole it creates in the staff? Can you imagine not acknowledging the fact that a coworker had a child when they return from parental leave? How do you support an adult child when they return to work after dealing with a major life experience – perhaps the death of a parent? Support all working caregivers in your company by creating policies for “family caregivers” rather than for mothers, fathers, and others.
5. Tone down the forced fun. Speaking of parties at work, why not ease up on the company outings? Forced company fun can cause a lot of stress for caregivers who feel the pressure to be a part of the team and understand that missing a round of drinks in the name of team-building comes with unspoken, negative consequences. The truth is, outside of the 20-somethings in your company (and not all of them), nobody wants to go bowling as a team, take a duck boat tour with their department, or play dodge ball with the CEO. If you don’t believe me, you could ask your employees. But they will probably lie because they think they are supposed to.
6. Preach, and teach, compassion. The simplest way to make your workplace more caregiver-friendly is to cultivate a culture of compassion. A bad manager can torpedo a great employee, so don’t just share the company values – train your leaders on how to implement and embody them. Remember that caregiving isn’t just about time and tasks; it is an emotional and sometimes heartbreaking responsibility. I’m not suggesting we give caregivers a pass at work – if you show up you should be expected to perform your job – but we could give them a break from time to time. The day after taking a family member to the ER, so much better to hear, “How can I make your day easier?” instead of, “When do you think you can have that done?” A small and genuine gesture of support can go a long way.