Photo: Thomas ARTS

Three years ago, Tammy Smye* reached the breaking point. She’d spent years juggling two jobs while caring for her husband, whose chronic health issues left him unable to work. The emotional and physical exhaustion finally triggered a mental health crisis and she had to take a three-month leave from work.

“Basically, I burnt myself out,” she says.

Smye’s situation is not unique—almost one-third of Canadians in the workforce are caring for an adult family member or friend and most work full-time. Balancing care work and paid work responsibilities takes its toll on individuals, but there are costs to business too. Collectively, caregiver employees miss 9.7 million days of work each year, accounting for 10 per cent of all absenteeism reported for the Canadian workforce. Almost 560,000 of them leave their jobs to provide care.

Dr. Janet Fast, University of Alberta

Dr. Janet Fast, University of Alberta

With the support of an AGE-WELL grant, Dr. Janet Fast is investigating whether assistive technology can help. In the first study of its kind in Canada, she surveyed employers and their caregiver employees about using assistive technology to help integrate and balance paid work and care work roles.

Dr. Fast, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta, says many employees don’t disclose that care responsibilities are interfering with their job because they fear repercussions.

As a result, most employers are unaware of how many employees carry these dual roles. This disconnect and lack of communication also extends to the use of technologies: 40 per cent of employees felt that their workplace would not be open to the use of assistive technology to help them manage their responsibilities, yet the majority of employers were actually supportive.

Some assistive technologies are already being developed, such as apps that allow caregivers to find personalized information on support services or to create a network of family and professional caregivers and share information and health data. There is also sensor technology being pioneered by AGE-WELL researchers that would allow a caregiver to remotely monitor what is happening in the home.

“We need to connect employers and employees so that they are aware of each other’s needs.”

“We need to connect employers and employees so that they are aware of each other’s needs,” says Dr. Fast. “But we also need to connect them with product developers who have the capacity to innovate and create new products and services that will better meet caregiver needs.”

The AGE-WELL Network, which brings stakeholders together to develop technologies and services for older adults and caregivers, is an obvious starting point. Dr. Fast will be sharing her findings across the network. She is also establishing a leadership circle of employers to develop strategies, including technological solutions, to meet the needs of caregiver employees.

Dr. Fast says the fact that employers thought assistive technology had the potential to help employees is a good sign. “That’s very encouraging,” she says. “That means there is probably a market out there.”

*not her real name

Originally published at AGE-WELL.