Caring for a chronically ill parent, spouse, or other relative is hard. And, without support, it can seriously interfere with paid jobs, disrupting not only employees’ lives but their workplaces as well. There are lots of good reasons for firms to assist workers who are caring for loved ones. Unfortunately, many don’t make the effort, perhaps because they are worried about the cost or question whether this assistance really benefits enough employees to be worthwhile.

To try to address those challenges, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers and a small group of employers have developed a potentially valuable, small-scale model that holds real promise. The idea: Small and mid-sized firms would work together to offer a care navigation program geared to the specific needs of individual workers in their community.

A Step Up

This personalized care navigation would be a step up from typical Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), a benefit commonly offered by many mid-sized and large firms. Many EAPs offer emotional support and generic caregiving advice. But they rarely provide informed guidance on critical local services or the highly personalized advice care partners need.

The enhanced support program that RCI contemplates would address those needs. But it could be costly and, especially at small firms, might be used only sporadically by workers. The possible solution: A group of firms could come together to provide a joint benefit.

Care navigation is extremely important yet hard to find. For the first time, traditional Medicare is about to begin paying for some of these services, but only for people with dementia and their families. If that program succeeds, it could boost the model RCI developed, at least for some workers.

Normalizing Caregiving

Most important, the RCI group felt these initiatives should be built on a workplace culture that, in the words of its report, “normalizes caregiving.” The idea: Taking time to care for an aging parent, spouse, or another relative with disabilities is not an out-of-the-blue disruption. It is an expected part of work that many employees inevitably will confront at one time or another.

The RCI group felt employers would be most successful if they could create or expand on existing initiatives aimed at educating both managers and staff more generally about family caregiving. For instance, this first step could include providing basic information about what caregiving is, and how it is supported by government programs such as Medicaid and local community programs.

On top of that base, firms would provide more specific actionable navigation services for their workers.

Helping The Bottom Line

Firms need to become more aware of how these programs benefit their own bottom lines. Family caregiving reduces worker productivity and increases turnover. Not only do support programs have the potential to help in hiring and retaining employees, they may save firms the significant costs of recruiting and training new workers when the burdens of caregiving force existing staff to reduce hours or even quit. The hoped-for employer benefits: higher productivity, less turnover, more engaged workers, and a powerful recruiting tool at a time when good employees are hard to find.

In a 2021 survey, RCI found that 40 percent of employed family caregivers had to reduce their hours to support a loved one, and nearly one in five quit their jobs.

Some research finds that worker turnover adds about 20 percent to a firm’s labor costs. And for some highly-skilled positions, it may be substantially higher.

Supportive Employers    

RCI’s shared care navigation model was developed by a group of five small- and mid-sized Michigan-based employers brought together by the Carter Institute. Participants included non-profits Alternatives for Girls, Gesher Human Services, and Volunteers of America Michigan. Businesses were Carhartt Inc, a manufacturer and online retailer of work and leisure clothing; and Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, a chain of restaurants, event spaces, caterers, and online food sales.

The group plans to roll out its cooperative navigation model later this year.  Firms would share the costs of a navigator who would make referrals to local service providers as well as provide caregiving advice tailored to the specific needs of employees.

While the idea holds great promise, there are many unanswered questions. This was a self-selected group of employers who already are committed to supporting worker/family caregivers. Will they follow through on their proposed joint effort? Will enhanced navigation assist employees and, at the same time, benefit their employers through lower turnover and higher worker productivity? And, finally, will other employers eventually embrace such a cooperative venture?

It will be a while before we know the answers. But these are important ideas worth trying.