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Caregiving Is Crucial: How To Support Caregivers And Why It Matters So Much

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 14, 2021

Caregiving has always been important to families, friends and communities, but over the last year and a half, caregiving has escalated in its value and significance. The necessity for caregiving has intensified, the definition of caregiving has expanded and its impact on life and work has increased.

All of this puts new stressors on people and their employers—and new rewards as well. Far from just a drain or a demand, caregiving is a complex and mixed experience which requires understanding, focus and intentional support.

New Definitions

In the popular press, caregiving is often defined as care provided to elders—including everything from housekeeping and personal care to transportation and non-professional medical support (giving meds, etc.). According to the American Geriatrics Society, 30% of people 65 and older receive help. And 65% of this care is provided by unpaid caregivers including friends, family or neighbors. But a full definition of caregiving also requires attention to the care we provide to children, friends, neighbors or others who need support.

During the pandemic, the types of people who need support and the kinds of care they need have expanded. Caregiving includes childcare and learning help—especially as childcare facilities and schools have closed or reduced capacity. It also includes non-professional healthcare for all ages. And the toll on our collective mental health also necessitates more caregiving in the form of emotional support and empathy. Of course, the pandemic is one factor. Another is the “sandwich generation” in which people care for their children, parents—and sometimes grandparents—due to people’s increasing longevity.

Impacts on Caregivers

Studies over the years emphasize the stress caregiving can cause. It can indeed be exhausting for the caregiver—physically, emotionally and cognitively—because of a lack of time or boundaries, or the emotional toll of caring. In fact, a study by the American Staffing Association found parents of children under 18 reported their responsibilities for facilitating learning for their children interfered with their ability to get ahead at work.  

But while there can be negative impacts, recent research also shows caregiving isn’t as harmful to caregivers as we might have believed. In particular, studies from Johns Hopkins and the University of Southern California  show caregiving doesn’t have negative effects on caregivers. In addition, a study from the University at Buffalo found when caregivers are shown appreciation, it enhances their experience. And research from Universität Basel found caregivers tend to live longer compared with those who do not provide care for others.

We value each other, and community is an important part of the human condition. We are happier and healthier when we’re connected with others. In addition, our sense of purpose and joy are enhanced when we contribute our skills, talents or care to others in need. A study published in NeuroImage found people have  a natural impulse for caregiving, and research from Child Development found people’s experience of receiving care in their first three years is integral to their wellbeing later in life. The bottom line: Caring is important in our human experience. Our human instinct for belonging and affiliation is likely what contributes to the positive effects of caregiving.

Supporting Caregiving

Since caregiving is so important to communities, there are crucial supports employers can provide. And this will work to employers’ advantage since support for caregiving has become a factor in attracting and retaining employees. In addition, employees who provide care for others are building all kinds of skills which are transferable to work—everything from empathy and follow through to attention to detail and leadership. There are good reasons for employers to support employees who provide care—for the caregivers themselves, but also for the organization.  

Consider a model of demand and capacity. Employees will be under a variety of demands, from both their work and their personal life. In addition, they will have perceptions of their capacity. Employees will be most effective and people will be healthiest when they perceive their capacity is enough to support the demands they face. Each of these—demand and capacity—shift based on circumstances. The key to supporting employees is to consider both sides of the model. For example, providing greater flexibility and not insisting employees work 100% of the time from the office can reduce demands, while providing empathy can increase their perceived capacity.

Employer Mindset Matters

An organization’s view of employees makes a difference. In particular, employers should acknowledge and appreciate the whole person at work. Realize when they are away from work, they may be giving medical support, facilitating learning or providing emotional nurturing to family or friends.

In addition, rather than being separate, work and life are connected: Work is part of a full life, and there is a powerful spillover effect between work and life. When people are happier at work and given more autonomy at work, they tend to be happier at home. The opposite is also true, when people are happier outside of work, they tend to perceive greater satisfaction in their work experience. When employers are empathetic, understanding and appreciative of the human experience of their employees, it has positive impacts on the overall work experience for employees and results in greater engagement and retention.

What Employer Support Looks Like

Employers can also support caregiving and caregivers by allowing for flexibility. Some jobs lend themselves more naturally to flexibly than others, and employees need to be accountable for results. But it’s also helpful when employers can provide as much choice as possible in terms of where, when and how people work. In addition, focusing on outcomes—rather than simply presence—fosters flexibility. Managing based on performance is effective for many reasons, not the least of which is support for caregiving.

Innovative employers also pay attention to employee wellbeing by providing substantial benefits (examples from Wiley, KPMG, ServiceNow and Monster) as well as mechanisms for caregiving support (think: care.com). They also develop leaders’ skills and encourage leaders to demonstrate empathy and attention to employee needs—both of which have been correlated with greater employee mental health. Employers can also sponsor resource groups or affinity groups (think: parents of young children groups or caregiver dementia support groups) which create the conditions for employees to support each other. And workplaces designed for wellbeing (think: daylight, views, napping rooms, mothers’ rooms and the like) are also powerful positive elements.

Caregivers Caring for Themselves

In addition to ways employers can enhance the caregiver experience, caregivers can also influence their own health and happiness. Caregivers sometimes report a lack of boundaries or a feeling of overwhelm based on the caregiving tasks they face. But caregivers can reduce their stress by setting boundaries or by limiting their caregiving hours (where that’s possible). They can also seek social time with friends. All of these tend to reduce stress.

Caregivers can also create the conditions for happiness by building a support network for the people who need care. In a cadre of caregivers, those who love cooking can deliver great meals while those who love to read can provide companionship. Northwestern University research demonstrates when caregivers are taught techniques for greater happiness, they also experience less stress in caregiving.

In Sum

Overall, caregiving is a critical part of a strong society. Caregivers provide support to those who are elderly, young or in need of direct aid, and they also contribute to the fabric of our overall community. Resilient communities are those in which people can rely on each other, trust each other, ask for help and pull each other through hard times. And these times are certainly tough. They remind us how much we all need each other—and how much caring—not just caregiving—is critical to our individual and collective wellbeing.

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