There’s no denying it: Having the option to work from home has huge benefits for family caregivers. So much so that a 2021 AARP study found that nearly nine in 10 caregivers said working at home helped them manage their caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic. However, for the past few months, people have been returning to the office, and — not surprising in the least — it’s cause for stress for folks with caregiving obligations.
Flexible schedules and the ability to work remotely, along with other pandemic-related offerings from employers like mental health resources, paid family leave and subsidized elder care, have been huge benefits to working family caregivers. This has allowed them to help out where needed, whether that’s performing home health aide duties, keeping track of medications, keeping seniors company or keeping them safe.
This new way of working is so important to family caregivers that 43% of respondents said they’d look for a new job if their employer rolled back any of these benefits. But that still leaves a majority of workers who will need to adjust to office life (if they haven’t already) — and the downstream effect on their role as a caregiver.
Dr. Debanjan Banerjee, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences and one of the consultants at DoctorSpring, says, “Caregivers who are going back to the office are dealing with a new set of stresses, mainly on how their loved ones are going to fare without someone from the family within easy earshot or eyeshot.”
But there is a silver lining. “Employers have become more empathetic about their employees having elderly parents or grandparents to take care of,” Banerjee says. “The pandemic made it normal to open up about caring for a loved one, and employers are willing to make adjustments to enable their employees to do just that.”
Certified Senior Advisor Max Mayblum views this moment as an opportunity for working family caregivers. “The pandemic has forced everyone to question what type of life they want to lead,” says Mayblum, who is also the founder and CEO of Givers, a caregiver wellness and support platform. “If as a caregiver you discovered new prioritization in your life that brings you and your loved one health and happiness, it is highly important to take this newfound perspective and immediately put it into practice when returning to work. It can be easy to fall back into old work patterns, so keeping momentum on positive changes is critical.”
Here are expert tips for making any transition back to work go more smoothly when you’re a family caregiver.
Open up to your manager about your needs
Prior to COVID, little more than half of employees had informed their supervisors about caregiving responsibilities, according to aN AARP research report on caregiving. “Having an open conversation with a supervisor can both unlock new flexibility and also alleviate the stress of hiding these responsibilities at work,” says Mayblum. “While companies focus on retaining employees, caregivers should consider asking for paid family leave, flexible work hours and/or a hybrid remote work schedule.”
He adds: “Employees have greater leverage than ever to determine their own work-life balance. When returning to the office, caregivers should use the opportunity to level-set with their employers.”
Mayblum suggests framing your conversation in alignment with the goals of the company and your manager. “When talking with managers about transitioning back to the workplace, have a concrete schedule or request in mind and justify your ask with the promise to more sustainably perform at a high level,” he says.
If you’re met with resistance, offer a trial period for your suggested schedule, and be sure to prove that you can make it work.
This is a situation that Liza R. Clancy, a clinical social worker at New Jersey’s Seasons Psychotherapy and Wellness, is closely familiar with. She worked as a caregiver to her mother until her death, which meant she had to take a leave of absence from her job.
Clancy suggests being honest with your manager while offering clear, actionable suggestions for moving forward together. “It’s OK to say that you are stressed but motivated to resume work and ask for help and support in managing the situation,” she says. “Think about what specific steps might be helpful.”
For instance, according to Clancy, you might want to:
- Ask for accommodations that will allow you to perform at your best.
- Be aware of your particular job parameters and the culture of the company in order to make reasonable requests that will be mutually beneficial as opposed to just drawing attention to your limitations.
- If you find yourself met with insensitivity or unreasonable demands: Consider speaking with someone in human resources to be sure you’re not facing discrimination.
Set a schedule — and stick to it
A fixed schedule is critical for working family caregivers to maintain a healthy balance, says Deborah J. Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort who holds her doctorate in sociology and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption. Cohan suggests implementing a semi-structured schedule in which you block out times you will be available for visiting loved ones, taking phone calls and attending family meetings about care with other relatives and the medical team — so these responsibilities don’t bleed into everything else.
“Returning to an office while simultaneously worrying about a loved one takes its toll, and it is easy to either fall into a pattern of doing more, more, more and crashing from exhaustion and becoming vulnerable to getting sick,” Cohan says.
She recommends communicating your schedule to loved ones and anyone else providing care. Be clear about when and how you are comfortable being contacted outside of emergencies.
Create healthy boundaries
Harriet Blank, director of geriatric services at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services in New York, says that you can prevent burnout — as a worker and a family caregiver — by setting boundaries. ”Boundaries help our employer know we are on the job and give family understanding that when we are present, we are present,” notes Blank. ”That doesn’t mean crises don’t happen, but there will be less chaos when there are clear boundaries. We need to be honest with work, family and ourselves about expectations and what is doable and what is too great a stretch.”
Cohan agrees that it’s crucial for caregivers to remember that it’s OK to say no and to not always be readily available. “At times, this may involve saying no to loved ones,” Cohan says. “Caregivers need opportunities to nourish themselves, to have leisure time and rest, to be in nature, to exercise. By doing things like this, they are more replenished for this juggling act.”
It’s similarly important for family caregivers to be clear with their supervisors and colleagues about their situation, needs and concerns when it comes to managing these various and complicated responsibilities, notes Cohan. “Given how common caregiving is, most managers already know that employees will be confronted with these dilemmas, and some may have gone through similar experiences themselves.”
Investigate alternate options for loved ones
It may be necessary to arrange alternate care options when you return to the office. A few options that might be helpful include:
Amy Goyer, AARP’s resident caregiving expert, advises caregivers to ask about staffing levels and reliability of service at adult day care centers.
Goyer also recommends starting adult day care — or making a move to a facility — before you return to the office, if at all possible. “This will ease the transition, and you’ll have more flexibility to ensure your loved one is being well cared for and that the change is going smoothly,” she explains.
It’s also important to prepare yourself and your loved ones. “Be sure to discuss what the change means for your loved ones and reassure them that they will continue to receive support and you will still be there for them,” says Goyer. “Talk about who will be helping out and when you anticipate being available. Listen and validate their feelings about the change, but be clear that you are committed to ensuring they are well cared for.”
And don’t forget to have a backup plan in case the arrangement you’ve set up doesn’t work out. Although you don’t have to make decisions right now, it can help to know what your options are, says Goyer. This may include finding another job, requesting a change with your current employer or finding a different care situation for your loved ones.
If you’re looking for extra support along the way, your local Area Agency on Aging can help you navigate this process.