supporting caregivers: the sandwich generation at work

Supporting Caregivers: The ‘Sandwich Generation’ at Work

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Supporting Caregivers: The ‘Sandwich Generation’ at Work

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supporting caregivers: the sandwich generation at work

Table of Contents

I’ve been told my whole life to enjoy being young and to grow old gracefully. To enjoy and soak in every moment, especially the milestones – like turning 21, graduating college, and purchasing my first home. No one told me that these milestones lead to others that are less fun-filled – like the first time you discuss a health care directive or sit with your parent on a call with their credit card company because they don’t know how to verify their identify with their phone. No one told me about the moment when my mom would call with my dad’s first cancer diagnosis.

And no one told me about the moment when I would move from child to caregiver. It happened unexpectedly while I was recording a webinar just outside my home office. I heard a scream and after some chaos my husband and I quickly realized my mother-in-law (who was visiting) was having a stroke. No one told me about the moment where I and my spouse and siblings would have to have hard conversations. Our texts now flutter with conversations about medication schedules and prescriptions, Medicare and Medicaid coverage, doctor appointments and rehab center visits.

This particular adult milestone hits different. I’m not celebrating with a glass of champagne or a tequila shot like I did when I got my first job post-college graduation. Instead I’m spending this moment in my fuzzy socks and PJ’s contemplating my own future with the goal of limiting the stress that my family and I are currently experiencing for my own child as I guzzle down my 100 oz. of water and assorted list of vitamins that cover my kitchen counter. I’m reading a book on osteoporosis and yoga to help my mom who had a recent diagnosis.

As a parent of a teenager who has just entered high school, I’ve been ushered into the sandwich generation which has been hitting me hard. No one talks about this moment. It’s not glamorized on tv or the news. We binge watch Gossip Girl or Friends to escape the reality where I have not just one but two parents going through some crazy life altering things.

What is the Sandwich Generation? 

The sandwich generation is one where as adults we act as parents to two sets of humans, our children as well as our parents. Our days are filled with caregiving decisions for not one, but two (and in my case three) separate adults. We’ve gone to MySpace to MyChart, agonizing not over our top 10 friends but our 10 ten appointments, scheduled procedures, and prescriptions list (which this week for my dad happen to be two rounds of chemotherapy, a chest x-ray and blood dialysis).

Talk of how we support our workplaces and employees is filled with conversations around parental leave and support for fertility treatments, with many companies now offering these as part of their paid medical plans if you live outside of Alabama. However, given my recent experience, I want to draw your attention to new and different area of how we can support our employees with certain flexibility and benefits.

Your Employees as Caregivers

Nearly one quarter of adults who provide care for at least one parent over the age of 65 also take care of at least one child under 18, according to the new study from a team based in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. This is a significant number of your workforce and some of your most valuable workers from a knowledge and experience standpoint. Yet, all we are able to offer them is intermittent FMLA leave (and that is if your employee and company qualifies). I realize this is not a new phenomenon, but it is one I want to shed light on.

Caregivers spend an eye opening amount of hours on average caring for their parents. In fact, I don’t want to really talk about this number because it’s downright depressing. Adults on average spend 75 hours caregiving per month. That equates to 19 hours per week, combined with my time spent as mom taxi for my 15 year old, I am spending over 35 hours a week for one parent and my child, but at present I’m caregiving for two. I hope you get the picture. We have little time left for anytime outside of work let alone the mental capacity to focus on our own mental health and wellness.

The mental gymnastics I have to do to navigate multiple meetings with case managers, doctors, nurses, not to mention juggling two parent medical portals, is nearly a full time job. I have yet to talk about work or client calls, Slack messages, work emails or meetings with my boss. They are taking a back seat to the reality that is right in front of sandwich generation caregivers.

So how are we supporting these employees? For a handful of my friends who are caregivers to parents, one adult bears of the load because of their flexible schedule or in my case, because I am an entrepreneur. I am in compete control of my and my team’s schedule, work and projects (thankfully). Most U.S. based employers do not offer caregiver support, paid time off or resources to support a life transition like this. A recent survey conducted by Harvard Business School revealed that 32% of U.S. employees voluntarily left a job due to caregiving responsibilities with the majority of these being women who for a second time our putting a pause on their careers to help and support others.

Supporting Caregivers Should Be Part of Your DEIB Programming

If your company is focused on employing women in the workplace, this should include women of all ages and stages including and especially those who are over 40 (who are a protected class) and are most likely to fall into the role of primary sandwich caregiver while also working at your organization. This is yet another example of how women are forgotten and penalized in the workplace not just because they bear children, but also again later in life because they are supporting their families in a new and different way. Do you remember when the term the pink recession post COVID was at the forefront of everyone’s mind? I talked directly with the VP of HR with IBM where we discussed the negative impact women were experiencing from being the primary caregivers during the pandemic and with our workforce as well as the Boomer generation exiting the workforce, it is an eventual reality for the majority of your workforce over 40.

I am part of the problem because until I experienced this myself, I didn’t think about how this all ties into the DEI side of things for your company and business. It’s not about just creating flexible leave or schedules. It’s about providing levels of support for employees throughout all life transitions. It’s about not penalizing employees keeping them from promotions like Dell is currently because their new policy prohibiting employees from receiving promotions if they work remote. This is a form of discrimination impacting primarily women who need flexibility in their job for a variety of reasons which could likely be for caregiving. This public change from Dell will influence hundreds or even thousands of other businesses to follow suit creating a chain of events where certainly under-served communities under the diversity umbrella will suffer including women, people with disabilities, and minority employees. This change is in direct conflict which Dell’s company page on diversity equity and inclusion.

When we make these sweeping changes the ripple effects can last a lifetime and for company like Dell’s who I know invest heavily in their employer brand building as well as employee retention, I will say I am surprised by this recent company change. Many tech companies walk the talk. I’m not saying that Dell won’t change their stance perhaps after taking a look at the bigger picture a change like this can make. It will hurt the employee groups they are seeking most to engage, hire, develop and retain, or are these efforts just for show?

As for me, I’m juggling my time between Kansas to spend time with my dad and family there. My mother in law is currently in a rehab center here in Austin while she recovers from her stroke. I’m doing the best that I can for me, my family, and prioritizing my own mental health. I’m grateful to have found a daily meditation practice along with my yoga keeping me centered amidst all this change. I’m taking small moments to celebrate the small things while my family and I navigate these life transitions.

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