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From Wear Comfortable Shoes- Surviving and Thriving as a Caregiver ©2012 Peter W. Rosenberger

According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, approximately “73% of family caregivers who care for someone over the age of 18 either work or have worked while providing care.”  With 65 million Americans serving as a volunteer caregiver for a vulnerable loved one, that percentage reflects a vast amount of today’s workforce that is saddled with the extra responsibilities of caregiving. With Baby-Boomers racing into senior status, tomorrow’s workforce will have to balance caring for a huge population of aging parents.  The alarm bells are sounding that a large number of individuals will require volunteer caregivers, and the trend clearly reveals that more and more workers will need to juggle their professional life while caring for a loved one.

MetLife provided a 2010 study that showed American workers from every profession struggling to balance work responsibilities while serving as a caregiver. The MetLife report revealed significantly higher costs to the employer – ranging from absenteeism to health care. These costs to American businesses soar into the billions. (The MetLife Study of Working Caregivers and Employer Health Care Costs

In a robust economy, those costs and challenges to employers can be absorbed or accommodated somewhat easier.  In the difficult times facing today’s businesses, however, caregivers must function with extra care to avoid taxing the goodwill of employers and co-workers—as well as the “bottom line.”

The caregiver who daily attends the needs of the patient serves as a critical component of that patient’s overall health.  Although quantifying the exact value added by a caregiver can be challenging, all can agree that a gainfully employed caregiver is in the best interest of the patient.  Paychecks, housing, insurance, food —the entire patient-care ecosystem for many individuals depends upon the physical, emotional, and professional health of the caregiver.  Certainly not all patients have a family member or friend serving as a caregiver; and clearly not all caregivers maintain full-time employment.  Yet, according to the studies, approximately 47 million American workers are serving as volunteer caregivers for an aging, disabled, or chronically ill loved one. 

As someone who has faced this issue on an extreme level, I receive many requests to address this topic.  My passion is to equip caregivers with easy and practical tips on not only staying employed, but also excelling in the workplace. 

One of the most challenging issues I face as a caregiver for twenty-seven years is balancing work and my wife’s chronic and pressing medical issues. 

I recall days which started somewhat “normal,” but by the time our sons’ school let out, my wife was admitted into the hospital—and facing surgery.  Juggling the medical crisis alone is challenging.   Living up to work responsibilities, however, while somehow keeping the plates spinning of picking up children, fixing meals, and swinging by the hospital to meet with doctors—can make for some extra stressful workdays.

When the caregiver is the business owner or boss, scheduling work may be easier, but the stress of keeping the business going brings additional challenges.

Employees serving as caregivers regularly find themselves in tight work situations that often require appeasing one demand, while disappointing another. Saying “no” to a hurting family member in order to maintain work responsibilities can significantly strain an already stretched home life.  Saying “no” to an employer, however, presents a new basket of problems. Caregivers often find themselves balancing on the tightrope of not presuming upon the generosity of fellow employees and supervisors, while keeping crises at bay on the home front. 

Is it any wonder that many caregivers decline increased wages through promotions in order to avoid the extra responsibility that comes with workplace advancement?  Sometimes, it is even easier to leave the workforce altogether.  This decision affects not only the household budget, but is ultimately felt in the community (local businesses), lack of charitable giving (churches, non-profits, etc.), and even in the tax base of our national economy.

For many years, I took jobs I really did not aspire to, all for insurance and flexibility of schedule.  Like many caregivers, my earning potential and advancement took hits on numerous occasions.  Also like many caregivers, I learned to adapt and “figured out how to make it work.”  Along the journey, I discovered that although many bosses and supervisors possessed understanding, they still required good communication about the circumstances.

It was while balancing work and caregiving, that I learned the three “F’s.”

•   Be FORTHRIGHT with the Boss

•   Ask for FLEXIBILITY

•   Give a FAIR day’s work.

Be FORTHRIGHT with the Boss

Surprises rarely create good feelings in a workplace.  Employers are likely to be more understanding and accommodating if they know up front some of the challenges that may affect work performance and/or schedules.  Taking a proactive stance and letting supervisors into the loop, without disclosing too much personal information, can be a help down the road when crises occur.

Sometimes a boss can be a friend, but experience cautions me to keep the relationship limited to business if possible. Human nature being what it is, disclosing too much personal information can have some drawbacks, so caregivers need to show extra savvy to only provide that which is pertinent to the workplace. 

A qualified counselor (private or through an Employee Assistance Program) can serve as a sounding board for how to approach a supervisor in order to discuss caregiving circumstances. Human Resources directors can also be a help in this matter. Counselors, therapists, and pastors can all serve as another source of wisdom and coaching in helping formulate a plan to approach a boss or supervisor.

Ask for FLEXIBILITY

The answer is always “no” until you ask.  Work schedules are not the Ten Commandments. Where does it say, “Thou shalt not swap shifts?” Who says working from home on certain occasions is out of the question? The evolution of the modern workforce is astonishing.  No longer do we have an industrial mindset where work only happens during certain and specific hours of the day.  Many jobs cater to the global economy – and the mobile and virtual offices that define today’s workplace.  Granted, a nurse at a hospital or a server at a restaurant works well-structured shifts, but those and many other jobs are “tweak-able.”

Give a FAIR day’s work

By demonstrating to co-workers that caregivers deliver quality work without sloughing off, we can also earn many “chips” to cash in during extreme scenarios.  No one wants to help lazy or entitlement-minded individuals, so by earning a reputation as an industrious and responsible employee (and we caregivers are by definition industrious and responsible people), other workers and supervisors will feel more inclined to accommodate shift changes, task reassignments, and even tardiness or leaving early.

In my years of caregiving, I developed a simple numeric plan of “1-2-30” to help me stay on track in all the major impact areas of caregiving.  Those areas affected by caregiving are: health, emotions, lifestyle, profession, money, and endurance (they spell out HELP ME!)  For the profession component, I found the following items to be easy reminders of how to shore up the “professional front” of my life and improve my standing in the workplace.  Staying with the 1-2-30 system, the following ideas have provided great help to me:

1 training class per year to learn new skills

From Power Point to fixing a car, there are always new skills a caregiver can learn. Many companies will pay for ongoing training, computer training, and even collegiate and post-graduate work. Taking advantage of the opportunity to improve as an employee, as well as a person, is a smart move.  One training class per year is doable.  In order to not “bite off more than one can chew,” it is wise to avoid trying to earn a doctorate or other grand achievements in one year.  Keeping in mind the importance of managing expectations, taking a computer class, for example, might be a place to start.   Maybe learning management skills would be a good direction for a server at a restaurant.

At lunch recently, a friend mentioned the story of a woman in his church whose husband suffered from multiple sclerosis.  Working as a physical therapist, she served as the major income source for her family.  Without any warning, she arrived at work one day to discover a pink-slip. Out of work with a disabled husband and two small children – well, you can imagine the fear gripping this woman.

After an unsettling and stressful time, she has since landed a new job. Although all seems to be well, there exists an opportunity to help her minimize the risk of this reoccurring.  What if her pastor/church leaders approached her and said, “We know this was a scary time, and, although we can’t keep this from happening again, we want to help you better insulate yourself from unemployment. If you are willing, we can help arrange childcare and even possibly underwrite your taking a class once a week or so – to become more proficient in your field.”

How do you think the woman would respond? In that situation, the church is caring for the practical needs, as well as the spiritual needs of this family. It may not mean much of a financial investment on the part of the church.  Maybe just coordinating childcare would be sufficient, but either way, it helps this woman develop a plan that will ultimately provide a greater sense of security for this family. Keeping this woman employed is in the best interest of the family, church, and society. 

On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, I heard a major employer state, “… In today’s economy, workers cannot expect to remain employed with the same skill set they started with.” By improving “market value” as an employee by learning one new job-related skill set each year, the risk of unemployment reduces.

2 performance meetings per year with supervisor

While some dread an annual review with a boss, I take the opposite approach and push for even more opportunities to evaluate performance and iron out potential employment landmines.  A consistent need for scheduling flexibility can increase tension among co-workers.  Through regular communication with a supervisor, however, a boss can become an ally and help run interference with disgruntled colleagues.  Just like visiting a physician twice a year provides an opportunity to discover potential health issues, two performance meetings per year with a supervisor can help identify potential employment issues.

Caregivers cannot afford to lose their job due to office politics, backstabbing by other employees, or any other performance issues possibly connected to caregiving responsibilities. Regular communication with an employer serves as a proactive way of keeping channels open, clearing up misunderstandings before they escalate, and demonstrating initiative and responsibility.

30 minutes DAILY away from desk/phone

The common mistake of wolfing down a sandwich at your desk, while fielding calls and working in a game of solitaire – just will not cut it for caregivers (or any worker, for that matter). Take a break.

Getting away from your desk or workplace is critical for working caregiver’s peace of mind, even if it means just sitting in the car with a book and NO phone.  Somewhere near the workplace a bench is waiting for a weary caregiver who needs a quiet place to collect his/her thoughts.  Every employer in America offers a break during the workday, and it is imperative to workers, specifically caregiving workers, to accept those breaks in order to recharge, refocus, and rest for at least thirty minutes during each workday.

The strain of caregiving presents challenges in and of itself, but in an unstable economy, the workplace is liable to be precarious for any worker requiring greater flexibility.  By incorporating such strategies as better communication and improving value to an employer, caregivers can reduce the risk of unemployment and job tension(s).  With a proactive approach, today’s caregivers can not only minimize the risk of unemployment, but can even position themselves for advancement. 

Caring for the patient is not limited to medically related tasks.  Healthy caregivers make better caregivers, and part of being a healthy caregiver for tens of millions of Americans is remaining a successfully employed caregiver.  In doing so, those working caregivers help provide resources and stability to vulnerable loved ones who desperately needs both.

Peter W. Rosenberger draws upon his vast experience in caring for his wife for 27+ years through her now 78 operations, multiple amputations, 60+ Doctors, 12 Hospitals, and $9 million in medical costs. In addition to authoring two books and numerous articles, he hosts a weekly radio show  for caregivers. Peter and Jeff Foxworthy  recently teamed up to do a hilarious video for AARP “You Might Be A Caregiver If …” For more information visithttp://www.caregiverswithhope.com .