By CATEY HILL
For the 43 million Americans> taking care of another adult, climbing the corporate ladder may seem all but impossible. Now, though, help is coming from a surprising corner: Your employer.
A decade ago, few people had ever heard of corporate benefits like elder care leave and caregiving referral services. Now some 10% of companies currently provide them, a percentage experts expect to keep growing. Flex-time, which is critical for dealing with emergencies or monitoring care, is also getting more popular. Almost one in five companies say that in 2011 they plan to add or increase the amount of flex-time options they offer employees, according to a survey by executive search firm Amrop Battalia Winston.
For those that have found caregiving to be a career killer, it's a welcome change. Nearly 75% caregivers say that they've had to change jobs or stop working because of the demands of caring for a family member or friend, according to a February 2011 survey by Caring.com. Furthermore, 40% of caregivers say that looking after someone has limited their chances to advance, according to The MetLife Juggling Act Study. All that career upheaval really hurts: The household incomes of families in which one person is a caregiver are 15% lower than those of families without a caregiver, according to the government's Disability and American Families study.
For employers, the move is strategic. Many understand that such benefits are now needed to retain "the best and the brightest" employees many of whom are finding themselves having to care for someone -- says Kate Lister, principal consultant for Telework Research Network. A 2010 government study, "Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility," also found that incentives like shortened work weeks and generous options for emergency leave tend to increase worker productivity, reduce turnover and save companies a significant amount of money.
Of course, companies that accommodate caregivers are still a minority. Jobs that require on-site workers, or those that require frequent, face-to-face client interaction, don't tend to offer as much job flexibility. And though some companies will offer flexible arrangements like shortened work weeks or the ability to come and go from the office as needed for long-time workers who make a deal with their managers, it's sometimes hard to get those offerings if you don't have a proven track record or are switching careers, says Meryl Rosenthal, CEO and founder of FlexPaths, which makes software that helps companies implement flexible scheduling.
But there's hope for caregivers. Companies with professional, skilled workers tend to be more inclined to offer the flex time that many caregivers need, says Lister. One of the reasons: these positions tend to be more malleable as computers, video conferencing, and other technology have changed where work can be done, says Rosenthal. And larger companies tend to be far more likely to offer elder care programs, which may include referral services and access to geriatric care managers, says Kathy O'Brien, a senior gerontologist for the Metlife Mature Market Institute.
Elder care benefits
In the past seven or eight years, many companies have started offering caregiver support groups, caregiving seminars and access to local caregiving resources like adult day services and home care providers, says O'Brien. "It's mostly the larger companies because they have the capacity to do it," she says. Take Intel, which began offering "elder care benefits" in 2005 a catchall phrase that encompasses benefits for caregivers who are caring for an elderly person -- after a survey of its employees revealed elder care to be a major concern. Now the firm works with AARP, the Alzheimer's Association and local agencies to offer services like free caregiving seminars. One notable offering: the Personal Leave program, which allows caregivers to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave for a life event above and beyond what's covered by the company's standard family leave policy. "We don't have any formal studies on this, but I think these [the caregiving policies] increase employee morale and engagement," says Dana Vandecoevering, the company's corporate work-life manager. Other leaders in the field: IBM, which was of the first companies to offer elder care benefits, and Johns Hopkins University, which now offers one of the most comprehensive elder care benefit offerings in the nation, including free elder care referral services back-up adult babysitting. More companies may follow suit, O'Brien says, as the boomer generation ages.
Flexible work hours
Accounting firms like Ernst & Young, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers are leading the way in workplace flexibility likely because they, bean counters by trade, see firsthand the significant impact these policies can have on profits, experts say. (Numerous studies, including this one by the Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, support the conclusion that workplace flexibility offers companies cost savings, with one analysis finding that if all U.S. firms adopted flexible work schedules, they could save a collective $15 billion or more each year.) Their flex offerings range from sabbaticals of up to three or six months during which workers receive 40% of their salary and full health benefits to allowing them to work from home for a few days a week. The companies, most of which introduced basic flexibility policies in the early 1990s, have since evolved their policies to apply to employees beyond just moms -- even during busy tax season. Other industries that tend to offer flexible work hours include public relations, technology and marketing firms, says Lavie Margolin, a job search adviser and author of the "Lion Cub Job Search." They're doing it to land and keep good employees, many of whom can't work a traditional nine-to-five job. To land one of these jobs, check out FlexJobs.com, which offers a list of companies that offer flexible working options.
For many caregivers, flexible scheduling simply isn't enough they need to work from home all the time. If you fall in that category, there's good news: Work-from-home opportunities are no longer limited to just call center jobs or direct sales. ELance.com lists thousands of jobs that can be done virtually -- mostly in the technology, marketing, graphic design and writing fields -- as does oDesk.com, which offers everything from bookkeeping and accounting to design and public relations gigs. These job typically don't require workers to be in a central office, and employers are looking to get the best possible match, regardless of where the employee lives, says Fabio Rosati, CEO of eLance.com. Last year, the number of work-from-home jobs posted on ELance increased nearly 30% over 2009 and the company predicts that it will rise by another 50% next year to offer more than 575,000 jobs. One drawback: Many of these jobs are offered on a contract-basis and don't offer health care or other employee benefits.