Handle with care: is elderly care a double-edged sword for women employees?

Posted in: Business and society, Employers, Research, Women

In the UK, there are over 3 million people juggling care responsibilities with work. As our population ages, more and more people are likely to take on caring responsibilities, and many of these will be women. As part of our series exploring the different roles of women in business and society, Yasin Rofcanin considers the challenges faced by women balancing employment and care, and the impact on their employers. 


Women as carers

Most people with long-term care needs turn to their families to receive assistance. Global estimates across different countries point out that 57% to 81% of all caregivers of the elderly are middle-aged women, either daughters or wives of those in need of care. Within this complex system, women take on many roles, becoming care manager, health provider, friend, companion and so on. However, as women's participation in the workforce increases, these different roles can conflict with each other.  Care giving can then cause challenges for women employees, who may need to opt for reduced work hours, early retirement and even quitting their jobs altogether.

Studies conducted across the globe paint a similar picture when it comes to the costs of care giving for women. Decreased work hours, being overlooked for promotion, training or personal development opportunities, change of job status from full-time to part-time and early retirement are some of the perils associated with women taking on responsibility for  elderly care. It seems that women settle for lower wages, reduced retirement benefits and poor job fit for the sake of looking after their elderly relatives.


Impact on employers

This also impacts dramatically on employers and there are significant financial repercussions. To give an example, in a study conducted by MetLife Mature Market Institute, the total estimated costs to employers of full time employed women who are also intense care givers is around $10 million per year. Absenteeism, workday interruptions and replacing employees account for the bulk of this cost.

There are two key questions that arise from this situation. One, is there a bright side to elderly care, in addition to its well-touted dark side; and two, what can organisations do to support women who having caring responsibilities, while at the same time fostering a resourceful work environment?


A bright side to care? 

The answer to the first question may lie in research on perspective-taking and empathy skills of women. Decades of studies demonstrate that women are better at putting themselves in the shoes of others and understanding others’ needs compared to men. Adopting a perspective-taking angle, recent studies have started to shed light on the potential bright side of elderly care giving roles of women. In our research conducted with full-time elderly care givers in El Salvador, the results revealed that taking care of elderly relatives at home can make you a better manager. This is because by going through the hurdles of taking care of your elderly relatives, you then understand that other employees may have similar needs. This increases the likelihood of managers who are also care givers allowing employees to work more flexibly. This finding was more salient for women care givers (who constitute around 75% of the sample).  Our findings demonstrated that women are better at understanding the perspectives and needs of their employees, therefore providing them with more flexible work options such as leaving work early.


How can employers help carers? 

So it seems that despite some of the challenges associated with employees who are care givers, having these additional responsibilities at home might make women better managers at work. But how can employers better support women who are in this situation? The answer may lie in research on encouraging care giving at work and developing workplace interventions to train employees on “how to become better care givers”, with particular focus on women employees. The findings in a recent study echo this argument. Across two interventions with health care employees who were also care givers (all of them women),  training managers to become family friendly and implement family oriented policies was shown to reduce employees’ strain and increase their job performance. A more interesting finding, however, is that these results were more salient and significant for women who had elderly care responsibilities.

It seems that elderly care giving for women is a double-edged sword.  We shouldn't disregard the financial and operational impacts on employers; however the skills women have as carers of elderly relatives can enhance their performance as managers. There is a lot to be done, learnt and adopted on behalf of employers and employees alike in minimising the negative impacts and maximising these potential benefits.


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Posted in: Business and society, Employers, Research, Women


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