Caregiving versus career: how to handle the balancing act
Many of today’s full time workers are taking on an additional role: that of informal caregiver for a spouse, parent, child, sibling or friend. Many caregivers can’t afford to put their careers on hold — they’re supporting a family, trying to plan for their own futures and often providing financial support for their care receiver. Juggling the expectations and responsibilities of both caregiving and full time employment can be a difficult balance.
Monthly budgets aren’t the only concern. Caregivers in the workforce are more likely to cut back their hours, miss work days and see their productivity suffer. They may miss out on opportunities for overtime and advancement, and the ones who do take time off can lose out on pension benefits too.
Then there’s the emotional toll: Studies have shown that while many caregivers experience strain and burn-out, the ones who are in the workforce feel the effects more keenly. There never seems to be enough hours in the week to get everything done, and many caregivers cope with often conflicting expectations.
Everyone’s situation is a different, but we enlisted Lauber’s expertise in finding some strategies to help.
Start a conversation with your employer
Employers don’t like surprises, so it’s important to open up the lines of communication as soon as possible — before you become overwhelmed or a crisis hits. In this initial meeting, you can let your employer know how committed you are to your work and find out what options or supports are available.
“Talk to your supervisor or HR department sooner rather than later,” says Lauber. “Explain to them what’s happening and that you may need to take some personal time.”
Many workplaces are equipped to handle parenting responsibilities and emergencies, but Lauber notes caregivers are still faced with helping employers understand their situation. It’s important to maintain good communication — especially as your responsibilities change — and find ways to work together.
Consider creative work options
Before you meet with your employer, put your problem-solving skill to work so you can present some possible solutions. Consider, for example:
Good record keeping is as important as good communication. Lauber advises to keep a “paper trail” of what was discussed and what steps are being taken. Keep a copy of any emails or paperwork regarding your caregiving responsibilities and your job.
What about phone calls and face-to-face conversations? Lauber notes it’s important to keep a record of any verbal agreements too. It isn’t always easy to remember what was said, and managers can come and go over the course of your caregiving responsibilities.
“After a phone call or meeting, follow up right away with an email,” Lauber suggests. “You can start by saying ‘Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Based on our conversation, I understand that…’ This way you can confirm what was said and you both have a record.”
Set limits and priorities
It’s all too easy for your roles to overlap, warns Lauber. Phone calls and running errands can interrupt your workday, and work can intrude on time spent with your loved ones. Experts generally advise to try to give your current task your full attention: focus on work when you are working, focus on your care receiver when you spend time with him or her — and focus on yourself and your family during your down time.
“You have to know your limits and maintain separation,” Lauber says. “Sometimes you have to know when to step back.”
For example, you might limit running errands or taking personal phone calls to your lunch break at work, or make room in your budget for paid care so you can make your income a priority.
Take advantage of financial support if needed
Neither the government nor employers offer much in the way of financial support, but there are two services caregivers should know about:
– Employment Insurance Compassionate Care Benefits. If a family member is critically ill and likely to die within the next 26 months, Employment Insurance will pay up to six weeks of benefits for people needing to take time off. (Note that this benefit is shared among family members if more than one person wants to take time off.)
– Caregiver tax credit. If you or your spouse are caring for a dependent in your home and meet certain criteria, you may be eligible for up to $300 back on your tax refund per family.
While the amounts seem meager and eligibility criteria are pretty strict, these initiatives can offer a little cash for people who qualify.
Take care of yourself too
Surveys repeatedly show that many caregivers feel they aren’t doing enough, but experts continue to warn that they need to take care of their own needs too. In addition to increased stress, many caregivers can become isolated from friends, family and even coworkers.
Like other experts, Lauber notes that caregivers have to look after themselves too. It’s okay to want time with your friends and family and to pursue activities outside of work and caregiving. It’s okay to accept help and seek support from friends, family, a spiritual leader and fellow caregivers. Eat well, exercise, meditate or have a long chat with friends over a glass of wine — do whatever helps you relieve stress. By looking after ourselves, we can better look after others. (For more ideas, see these tips for managing caregiver stress.)