If you are caring for a loved one and holding down a job, you are not alone. There are over 30 million American workers now dealing with the caregiving/work balancing act. Yet, as a society, we have not accepted aging & caregiving as a natural, normal part of life. For example, every other industrialized nation offers paid family leave for all workers. In the U.S., only residents of three states – California, New Jersey, and Washington – have access to this form of income protection when they take time off to care for a loved one.

And in today’s tough economic climate, many employers have tightened up on the work/life benefits offered. In many work places, employees are not comfortable talking about care for aging parents. Unlike child care, it’s not a common topic around the water cooler. And keeping caregiving a secret adds to the stress.

So, what can you do to reduce your stress and maintain your health as you juggle the demands of caregiving and work?

Let’s look at the top four needs of employed family caregivers and the kinds of workplace and community resources that can address these needs. Many of these supports cost very little to the employer – and can have a dramatic positive impact. Time spent researching the policies and practices of your employer can yield real benefits for you and your family.

The number one need is time, according to numerous surveys of employed caregivers. This includes time flexibility and time off from work and caregiving to refresh and renew oneself. We can’t create more hours in the day or more days in the week, but employers may offer flexible hours and options for telecommuting, i.e., working from home. Also, organizing work using a team approach can give more time flexibility. Some employers have erased distinctions between sick leave, vacation, and other types of leave to create a single pool of Paid Time Off (PTO). Not having to “call in sick” whenever one needs to take time for caregiving can reduce stress in many situations.

The second biggest need is for access to timely information about programs and services that can be of help to caregivers’ loved ones – and to themselves. About 25% of large employers offer consultation and referral services for employees dealing with elder care – either via an “800” number or employer-sponsored websites that contain in-depth information about services throughout the U.S. Some employers offer training for managers and employees and sponsor elder care “fairs,” inviting health and social service providers, along with representatives of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, for example, to set up information tables for a day or a week in heavily traveled locations like lobbies of office buildings or employee cafeterias.

The third area of concern is finances. Long term care can be very costly. It is not uncommon for a family to incur annual expenses of $50,000 or more for in-home care, assisted living, or private nursing home care. The key to finding financial solutions is good planning. More employers are offering company-sponsored long term care insurance and may include both employees and for their immediate family members. Purchasing such coverage as a member of a group can save a substantial amount of money, compared to the cost of an individual policy. It’s also vitally important for family caregivers to understand all the government-sponsored programs available for elders and persons with disabilities. The single most comprehensive listing of such benefits is offered by the non-profit National Council on the Aging at their website www.benefitscheckup.com

Last, but not least, employed family caregivers need emotional support. This is probably the most overlooked need. Many caregivers have told me that a word of encouragement or a disparaging remark by a co-worker or supervisor can make the difference between maintaining their emotional balance or reaching the point of emotional burnout. Health education and stress reduction classes can make a real difference. These are often offered via an employer’s health plan or by local hospitals and health centers. Also, employee assistance programs (EAP’s) offer counseling on family issues – and can be a good first place to call for help and advice.

To find out if your company offers any of these types of supports, speak directly with a manager or supervisor. Of course, this assumes that there is a good trust level between you and your supervisor. In today’s economy, many employees feel anxious about informing a manager about an elder care issue, for fear that it might be held against them or jeopardize their continued employment. If there is a poor relationship or the trust level is low with your supervisor, then I recommend either researching your benefits via the company website or speaking to someone in the human resources (HR) department. If there is conflict brewing between employee and supervisor, sometimes the employee in a larger organization can reach out to an employee relations specialist. Such a specialist can serve as a neutral third party who can convene a meeting of supervisor and supervisee to take an objective look at the situation and find a workable solution, acceptable to all.

What can you do if your employer offers no benefits or programs to accommodate caregiving responsibilities? In this situation, reach out for community resources. Every city and town in the U.S. is served by an Area Agency on Aging (AAA) that receives federal funding under the National Family Caregiver Support Program. If you are caring for someone over 60 years old or if you yourself are 60 or over and caring for a grandchild, the program can provide training, information, and support. To find out the telephone number of the AAA serving your area, use the national Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov The AAA can connect you with a variety of resources in your own community, or, if the elder lives at a distance, in the community where the elder lives. Many faith-based organizations offer caregiver support services, as well. So, check with your local church, synagogue, or mosque.

Some employed caregivers do have legal rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law applies to organizations with 50 or more employees. FMLA guarantees that employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child, or for a seriously ill parent, spouse or child, or to recover from their own serious health conditions. In addition, it provides job protection and continued health insurance coverage. FMLA job protection lasts for 12 weeks during any given year, so long as the employee is not out of work for more than 12 weeks total during the year.

The 12 weeks need not be taken consecutively. Leave may be taken in short increments if needed. For example, if an employee covered by FMLA might need to take two weeks off to assist a parent who has returned from the hospital following surgery, and then two additional weeks later in the year if the parent requires your help during recuperation at home.

The important thing is to put your request in writing to your supervisor and to be sure to mention that you are making the request under the FMLA. For more information about FMLA, visit the website of the Partnership for Women and Families at www.nationalpartnership.org or contact the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) at www.dol.gov or call the DOL Wage and Hour Division. The local office will send you a free copy of the DOL fact sheet on FMLA. Some state laws go beyond FMLA requirements and provide additional benefits. For a state-by-state listing, visit the Partnership for Women and Families website.

If you are looking for a new job, there are some questions you can ask to help assess whether the potential employer is sensitive to caregiver needs. A few suggestions: 1) Inquire about how much flexibility is possible in the position for which you are applying. 2) Ask if the company offers access to a family care hotline 3) Read the explanation of coverage for the health plan(s) offered to find out if stress reduction classes or health club membership discounts are included.

To find out more about what employers are offering, visit the website of the Family Caregiving Alliance at www.caregiver.org Besides serving as a rich source of information, this organization organizes on-line support groups for caregivers.

And remember: caregiving is not a one-person job. Involve other family members and others who are concerned about the person for whom you are caring. Speak to others at work. A trusted co-worker can be one of your best sources of support. Know your rights and don’t try to go it alone.

Author's Bio: 

A pioneer in the field of caregiving / work balance, John Paul Marosy's ideas and techniques have been applied by thousands of organizations and individuals to enhance caregving / work balance. John Paul is an inspirational keynote speaker and trainer, the author of the award-winning book, Elder Care: A Six Step Guide to Balancing Work and Family, and president of the consulting firm Bringing Elder Care Home. www.bringingeldercarehome.com