The daily onslaught of challenges faced by caregivers has been one of the biggest forces shaping work over the past year. Whether they are dealing with children engaged in remote online schooling or caring for loved ones ill from COVID-19 — or, in some cases, both — tens of millions of workers have been struggling to cover all of their responsibilities.
Business leaders have by and large expressed concern. And many have offered flexible schedules and extended benefits aimed at easing the burden. Still, many workers have long dealt with bosses who don’t get it. “Too many working parents and other employees with extensive caregiving responsibilities have stories of a manager who gives them an assignment at 4 pm and asks for it the next morning, or a boss who makes disparaging comments about another working parent who doesn’t seem loyal to the company,” journalist Rebecca Knight wrote in Harvard Business Review in September.
Such episodes may reflect no ill intent. Rather, the problem might in fact be a knowledge gap. A recent survey shows that many managers simply don’t know how many of their employees have caregiving responsibilities. They don’t know how much time and effort that takes. And they don’t know how they can help.
The Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) polled 300 business leaders (managers, supervisors, directors, and others) who oversee employees. When asked to estimate how many of their employees have caregiving responsibilities, less than a third (29 percent) of respondents guessed that most of their employees do. But a study by Harvard Business School published in 2019 found that 73 percent of employees have caregiving responsibilities. That figure is likely even higher during the pandemic.
Why might managers be underestimating this figure? “Many employers (52 percent) do not track data on their employees’ caregiving responsibilities,” the Harvard study explained. “Few employers, therefore, know the significant impact that caregiving has on the productivity of employees.”
Furthermore, in the DMEC poll, only one in five people said managers at their company receive training on the workplace benefits and resources available for caregivers. More than half (58 percent) said there’s no such training; the rest were unsure.
Businesses should certainly provide training on these topics. But that’s not the whole solution. Ultimately, in order to understand the challenges their employees face, managers need to learn from their employees directly.
Show your work
We’re all familiar with Take Your Child to Work Day, when kids are invited to their parents’ work sites. Among other things, such programs give children a chance to see their parents in a different light, and get a glimpse of what they do all day. For the past year, of course, millions of children have been watching their parents navigate the new world of working from home.
Tischler’s idea would flip the script. It would give managers a chance to see parents and their kids (or their elderly parents or other household members) in action at home, giving them a glimpse of what their employees’ daily lives are like. It could help managers gain “a better understanding that care-work is indeed real work,” Tischler says. But it could also help them see that caregiving can make employees even more valuable. It would demonstrate “the type of transferable business and soft skills that care-work teaches: from patience to empathy, creative problem solving, project management, and more.”
The idea would flip the script. It would give managers a glimpse of what their employees’ daily lives are like.
Of course, not everyone will want their manager to join them at home. And during the pandemic, it is not advisable to try. But there are other ways to make this idea work. As I envision it, Take Your Manager to Care-Work Day could start off as a one-hour experience by video, in which a manager has a thoughtful conversation with the employee. Without prying, the manager would listen to the employee describe his or her challenges. I recommend letting the webcam keep running every time a child or sick loved one needs anything.
As part of this process, managers and employees could discuss new solutions and brainstorm ideas to improve workflow and set realistic expectations. Most likely, managers will find that multiple employees bring up similar challenges and ideas. Those could then be compiled across the organization, and managers could bring them to the C-suite to secure new benefits and resources.
To this day, workers remain wary of having these kinds of conversations with their managers. The Harvard Business School study, by professors Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman, found that “few employees are willing to admit to their organizations that they are caregivers for fear that it will undermine their career prospects.” They “perceived harmful consequences,” including less-challenging assignments, lower salaries or bonuses, and an unsatisfactory career path.
The first step in solving this is for employees to communicate about it openly — with managers who share a genuine commitment to creating a supportive culture for caregivers. As PwC noted in the reportTime to talk: What has to change for women at work, “If the foundations of transparency and trust are established and women have strong support networks that mobilise for them, then the necessary two-way conversations about caregiving, family and broader life commitments will be easier to hold and more productive.”
In my work, I emphasize that the same is true for men. Fathers have faced negative consequences for talking about their caregiving challenges in the workplace. As a result, many remain silent, which helps keep this problem in the shadows. Many managers would be willing to help address the issue if they understood it better. That starts with helping them see it.
The past year has served as a wake-up call. Things have to change to make it possible for workers to succeed while caring for loved ones. When we bring our ideas, perspectives, and experiences together, we open each other’s eyes — and go a lot further toward tackling these challenges.