How to Juggle Caregiving Responsibilities and Work
Keeping It Together When Work and Care Are Pulling You Apart
Is there someone who relies on you to take care of them? Perhaps you have a young child, or a family member has a disability or long-term illness and needs your help.
If you're someone's carer, you'll know how difficult it can be to balance these responsibilities with your work demands. Naturally, you want to give your best to both roles, but there are bound to be days when they seem to be mutually exclusive. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to manage the demands on your time.
In this article, we'll look at some of the challenges faced by caregivers, and examine what you can do to manage your responsibilities at work and at home.
Caregiving Responsibilities: A Growing Trend
According to a 2015 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving, an estimated 43.5 million adults in the U.S. provided unpaid care to an adult or a child with special needs in the previous year. That's around 18 percent of the total population. The figure doesn't include typical parenting – it focuses on people who have a medical, behavioral or other condition that needs care.
Furthermore, the fact that we're living longer means that these figures are expected to rise dramatically. Living longer doesn't necessarily mean living healthier, and a significant portion of aging adults will need care at some stage.
Add the number of workers who have parenting responsibilities to this figure – according to 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 60 percent of workers have at least one child under the age of 18 – and it becomes clear that most people need to juggle work and caring commitments at some point in their career.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many people have had to directly provide full-time care for a relative for the first time. Schools and childcare facilities have shut, and support services for elderly and vulnerable people are at full stretch, and there's been little time to adapt.
How Caring Responsibilities Can Affect Work and Productivity
Caregiving responsibilities can have a big impact on your career.
Maybe you have to leave work or sign off early, or take long breaks during the day to pick up a child, or to care for a parent. This could make you less visible than colleagues who work a full, unbroken day. Your boss might assume that you're "less committed," because of your other responsibilities, and overlook you for promotion.
You may also have to put in extra time to keep up with your workload, which adds to the strain. One study, which focused on female caregivers, found that a higher workload correlated with increased symptoms associated with depression.
Another challenge caregivers face is the potential for discrimination. According to the nonprofit organization Catalyst, employees with caring responsibilities for children, elderly parents, or ill relatives face increasing levels of discrimination. Examples include being passed over for promotion or new positions, lower pay, harassment, hostile work environments, and even job loss.
Caregivers are often more tired, and spend less time on maintaining their own health and well-being, than people who don't have such responsibilities. This can result in "presenteeism," which means being present at your job but not working to your full potential.
Managing Work and Home Responsibilities
Juggling responsibilities at work and at home can be difficult. At times, you may feel as if you're being pulled in two different directions, but the following strategies can help you to "keep it together" when you're feeling stretched.
1. Get Organized
As a caregiver, you have a lot of responsibilities. Not only do you have to stay on top of your own work tasks and priorities, but you also have to spend time and energy juggling someone else's needs. This is where good organizational skills are so important. Getting organized will also help you create more time in your day – something every caregiver could use.
One simple way to be more organized is to use a notebook, or an online equivalent, as a catch-all for your thoughts, notes and tasks. This way, important information is in one place, and you don't have to use precious mental energy trying to remember everything. Start a new, dated page each day.
You could also use scheduling tools such as To-Do Lists and Action Programs to help you manage your time. Be sure to prioritize responsibilities, too, so that you don't lose time on nonessential tasks.
Think about where you feel most disorganized in your life. For example, are you often late for appointments? Is your inbox a mess? Do you often delay meals, because you're trying to finish off work? Pick the area that causes you the most stress, and brainstorm some small steps that you can take to be more organized.
If you're having to mix caregiving responsibilities with working from home, be sure to read our article on Staying Focused When You're Working From Home for some valuable tips.
2. Be Honest and Assertive
You might be reluctant to tell others that you're a caregiver, but honesty is usually the best policy. Your boss and human resources department might be able to offer you more help than you expect.
Many caregivers take on more work than they can realistically handle. You need to accept that there are only 24 hours in the day, and there is only so much you can do.
Be assertive about what you can reasonably take on, and talk honestly with your boss about your situation. Reiterate your commitment to your role and your organization, but let them know about any upcoming projects or tasks that you might not be able to complete. If you need to manage conflicting priorities, try to renegotiate deadlines or to delegate tasks, so that you continue to meet your boss's expectations.
Wise employers actively want to know your situation: they understand that they have a duty of care toward you. And because of COVID, many organizations are putting in place more flexible arrangements than usual. So talk to your HR department, explain what you need, and find out what options are available.
You might also need to be honest and assertive with any other people living with you! Perhaps you can't do all the things you usually would at home – some domestic roles might need to change, too.
3. Create a Contingency Plan
Life happens, and even the best-laid plans can go awry. This is why it's essential to have a contingency plan, and perhaps even a contingency plan for your contingency plan!
Conduct a What If? Analysis for your unique situation, so you can create a backup plan in case of an emergency. For example, what if your child fell ill right before you had to make a critical presentation? What if you were asked to travel for work on a day when you had to call your mom's doctor?
Make a list of the most likely emergencies that could throw your schedule off track, and come up with a contingency plan for each one. Reach out to family members, friends or colleagues, and ask if they'd be willing to help if something unexpected happened.
Exploring these scenarios encourages you to find solutions before the emergency happens, so that, if something unexpected should arise, you will know how to deal with it.
4. Take Time for Yourself
As a caregiver, your time is your most precious resource, and it is often in short supply. But don't be tempted to skimp on "me" time.
It's vital that you set time aside to rest and relax when people are relying on you. Get regular exercise, call friends, or take up a hobby. Taking time for yourself will help you to manage stress, and ensure that you have the physical and mental energy to be at your best.
Set aside some personal time in your schedule. Get some exercise, read a chapter of a book, or call a friend. Remember, keeping yourself healthy and happy will give you the strength and resilience you need to be your very best.
Carers often become so accustomed to putting the needs of others before their own that they put their ambitions on hold, and don't think about their futures. It's important to set long-term, personal goals for yourself – both for work and for aspirations in your wider life. Setting such goals will help to keep you motivated and moving forward.
5. Ask for Support
Because of the high number of caregivers in the workforce, there's a good chance that someone you know is in a similar situation. Don't be afraid to ask for help!
For example, imagine that you need to stop work early to care for your child, and a colleague needs time off in the morning to talk to their father's physical therapist. You could agree to job-share during the day, and take care of critical tasks while the other person is busy.
Emergencies happen, and your colleagues will be the ones to step in and pick up the slack when you need to be away. Whenever you're able, put some goodwill "in the bank" by helping them with their own work and responsibilities. Reciprocating kindness feels good, and will strengthen your work relationships.
Remember to use your organization's Employee Assistance Program, if it has one. Likewise, Employee Resource Groups or networks can help to promote the interests of people with shared experiences, like caregivers.
Outside your organization, make use of the many community groups who can offer valuable information and practical help. And if you're quarantined with able-bodied family members, use their availability to spread the load.
Supporting Caregiving Team Members
According to a 2017 survey by AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons), 87 percent of employers agree that supporting carers at work can increase productivity.
If you're in a leadership role, there is a lot you can do to support working parents and other caregivers on your team. One of the best ways to help is to be flexible. Whenever possible, allow team members to work from home or work flexible hours. Make sure that they are cross-trained in one another's roles, so that responsibilities can still be met if someone needs to take time off unexpectedly.
It's also important to address any stereotypes that you or other leaders might have about caregiving. For example, one common stereotype is that caregiving responsibilities will interfere with a person's ability to succeed in a fast-paced or competitive environment. Such cliches can be untrue: research by the Federal Reserve Bank, for example, has shown that, over the course of a 30-year career, mothers were actually more productive than women without children.
So, a good way to help the caregivers on your team to be their best at work is to ask for their input. Be honest about any assumptions you might have about caregiving. Put yourself in caregivers' shoes, and give them the chance to achieve their goals. Have a look at our tool designed for managers of caregivers for more tips.
Nearly everyone provides care for someone close to them at some stage in their career, and the percentage of caregivers is likely to increase as the population ages.
If you're in a caregiving role, you might feel that it's impossible to give your full commitment to both work and your personal responsibilities.
But there are steps you can take to make life more manageable:
- Get organized with scheduling programs and time-management tools.
- Talk honestly about your situation, and be assertive about what you can and can't handle.
- Reach out to colleagues for support, and try to help them with their own responsibilities, when you have extra time.
If you're a manager, support caregivers on your team by:
- Enabling them to work flexibly, wherever possible – either by giving them flexible hours or by allowing them to work from home.
- Cross-training staff in one another's roles, so that team members can support each other.
- Tackling stereotypes.
- Listening to caregivers' needs.
- Using our tool written for managing caregivers.
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