Informal caregiving – is a national strategy needed?

A third of Canadian workers are assisting an elderly or chronically disabled person and it’s affecting productivity – could a national strategy solve the problem?

More than six million Canadians are currently providing free care to a family member or friend and it’s having a huge impact on productivity – now, one health expert has said the only realistic solution is to implement a national strategy.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to most HR professionals, but employees who offer free support outside of office hours are likely to feel a negative impact on their work.

“[They] are more likely to experience interruptions at work and to arrive late or even be absent from work,” says Nicole Bernier, a research director for the Faces of Aging program at the Institute of Research on Public Policy. “Many are less available than they would otherwise be to work overtime, travel for work or advance their careers.”

With one third of employees providing some form of free care, the impact can already be felt in the Canadian workplace – and it’s only going to get worse as the senior population increases.

According to a recently released federal report, informal care-givers currently clock up an estimated 2.2 million hours of reduced workplace time every week and cost employers $1.3 billion in lost productivity every year.

Of course many employers are incredibly supportive of caregivers, offering flexible arrangements, compressed work weeks, telecommuting opportunities and leave options – but often, workers still get a sore deal.

“Not all employers are equally supportive,” says Bernier. “Many Canadian workers with caregiving responsibilities are paying the price: reduced income, career limitations and exit from the labour force.”

That could be because many employers just don’t see the business case for staunchly supporting their caring staff.

While employer support to employee caregivers may foster workplace engagement and retention, there might not be a business case for many employers to voluntary engage in it,” concedes Bernier.

“In other words,” she continues, “moral appeal and compassion for employee caregivers will not translate into a massive, spontaneous movement in the Canadian workplace to address the issue.”

The only solution? A national strategy, like those seen in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

“Only a coherent national strategy will allow Canadian workers looking after a spouse or relative to better focus on their work, their employers to better focus on their mission and disabled persons to get the care they need,” insists Bernier.

“Policymakers need to recognize the undeniable costs of unpaid caregiving,” she adds – to both employers and employees.

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