Gary Leblanc knows the trials of juggling work and domestic responsibilities. The 58-year-old full-time waiter in an upscale Ottawa restaurant is the primary caregiver of his wife, who has Parkinson’s disease. “I have to cook all the meals, bathe her, get her dressed,” he says. While a paid caregiver comes in two hours a day, Leblanc devotes several hours more caring for his wife. “It’s hard for people … to get enough care,” he says.
Informal caregivers fill gaps in healthcare
Leblanc is one of more than five million Canadians working outside the home while also caring for a family member or friend who is aging, chronically ill, or disabled. As our population ages, there is a growing demand for informal caregivers. They fill the gap between affordable and available private and public-funded healthcare resources and the needs of vulnerable people.
Allison Williams, a professor at McMaster University and Chair in Gender, Health and Caregiver Friendly Workplaces at Canadian Institutes for Health Research, says these carer-employees generally experience a lot of strain and stress, often carrying the equivalent load of two full-time positions. They may become anxious or depressed, and can suffer acute health issues that reduce their productivity at work or may lead to absences or medical leave. “They put themselves last,” she says.
The majority of Canadian caregivers are between the ages of 45 and 65. “These are the most experienced and most trained workforce,” explains Williams. “If they choose to leave to provide full-time care, then we are losing them economically from the labour market.” It is usually women who sacrifice their career, thereby losing their social networks and even their identity. And, they suffer financially. “We know it has an impact on their sustainability long term given the limited pension access for women in particular,” she adds. “Keeping these carer-employees working is important for a number of different reasons both individually and societally.”
CSA guidelines ask employers support caregivers
To support carer-employees, Williams developed employer guidelines in partnership with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). She says that we often look to paid personal support or various levels of government to assist vulnerable populations. “These guidelines ask the employers to basically step up and play a role in trying to best accommodate these carer-employees,” she says.
The guidelines offer practical solutions, information and case studies to help employers implement policies and programs. “They can pick and choose whichever guidelines are most convenient and workable with their particular workforce,” Williams says, noting that manufacturing environments require different solutions than, say, a university. Flexible work arrangements, employee assistance plans, and paid or unpaid leave are just some options available to accommodate caregivers.
Williams says small- and medium-sized companies, as well as those in the food service industry, have traditionally been the least accommodating to employees who need a leave of absence or more unpaid sick time or vacation. “They would be turned away and let go,” she says. While Leblanc feels fortunate to have a flexible schedule, 10 paid lieu days annually and dependent benefits such as unlimited physiotherapy, he has made career compromises. A double major in university, he was pursuing a career in accounting before his wife’s illness. “I knew 9 to 5 wouldn’t work, and having deadlines wouldn’t work,” he says.
Companies need to do more
It is more common for national organizations in the pharmaceutical, technology and financial sectors to provide a higher degree of support to caregivers. Along with their need to attract and retain a highly-skilled and mobile workforce, they are in a better place financially to fund programs. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, for example, offers 13 weeks of non-contiguous leave. “Eldercare comes in dips and highs similar to a roller coaster,” Williams says. There may be intense periods, like moving a family member to a long-term care home, so being able to take a few hours here and a few days there can be most beneficial.
Williams wants the guidelines eventually to become legislated through the Employment Insurance Act: “It’s an opportunity for both to win if again the time is taken to actually sit down and think through what guidelines apply in particular cases.”
For now, she hopes they provide a basic set of directives for employers and employees to develop strategies that keep good employees from burning out or leaving the organization.