You’re sitting in your cubicle or your corner office, but you’re not really there. Emails are pouring in, you have unanswered voice messages, there’s a crisis in IT, the system is going down, and the coffee-maker just died—but you don’t care. At 9:01 in the morning, you have more important things to worry about. Your mother fell and broke her hip. You have to call her doctor. You have to arrange home care. You have to notify your brother and sister on the West Coast. You have to … There are a lot of things you have to do—and you have to do them on company time.
You’ve just become a de facto “caregiver,” and you’re suffering from a 21st century workplace phenomenon, known as “presenteeism.” You’ve heard of “absenteeism”? Well, this is a closely related sister condition. You’re present and on the job, but you’re not REALLY present. There are many forms of presenteeism, such as you go to work sick, you go to work distressed about your divorce, you go to work and you have a nasty hangover… However, according to human resources professionals, an increasingly common variety of presenteeism centers on care-giving issues that involve an aging parent or a chronically ill spouse or child. Millions of Americans don’t even realize they have a second job—as part-time caregiver. As a result, productivity declines because they’re not concentrating on their work, and NOT doing all the things on the boss’s “to do” list because they’re doing all the things on their personal “to do” list.
Deb Norman, who is a strategic partnership manager for Home Instead Senior Care in Omaha, started to suffer from presenteeism after her father passed away and her mother was forced to change her living arrangements. During the day, Deb would make calls to help her mother sell the house, to move into an apartment and to handle financial matters. It was a long list that kept getting longer. “When my mother started to be afraid of driving in the city, I took off from work to bring her to doctors’ appointments,” Deb recalled. “Then, with her hearing loss, I spent time researching hearing aids, and it took five appointments to get that straight. One day it dawned on me, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a part-time caregiver. I’ve become a statistic.’ I’m often on the phone with my mom during the day, and I’m even researching arthritis because she has it.” There are many others who share her situation. An estimated 22 million Americans (roughly 15 percent of the workforce) are part-time caregivers for aging family members, and the loss of productivity is estimated at $38.2 billion a year. Norman says that Baby Boomers seldom identify themselves as caregivers until they’re in the throes of it—and most will be sharing the experience sooner rather than later. With a projected shortage of caregivers in coming decades, the crisis is expected to get worse. Right now, an average of seven people care for an elderly person, but within 15 years, that number will drop to four, Norman says.
We live in an era of increased longevity. There are some six million people over 85—and the average American’s life span is almost 80 years. In fact, many people who are born today will live four decades longer than a person born in 1900. And as the 76 million Baby Boomers continue to age, Alzheimer’s, dementia and other chronic conditions will reach epidemic proportions. In future years, there won’t be enough caregivers to handle the demand, and that shortage will be manifested in the workplace—employees will arrive late, leave work during the day, and suffer from fatigue, stress and related health issues.
In response to the emerging crisis, Norman says many companies are beginning to address the demands of senior care in much the same way they responded to child care several decades ago. In her role with Home Instead, she has developed programs to help employees navigate the challenges of care giving. “Companies need to be more flexible and understand that employees may have to juggle hours a little or work from home occasionally,” she says.
Businesses are adapting by providing counseling and employee assistance programs that help workers deal with the problems they confront caring for elderly family members. Some companies even offer backup home care and online resources so their employees can make wise decisions.
Most importantly, they help people realize they are not alone… because at some point in our lives, almost all of us will care for a loved one.
By Joe Pisani
Joe Pisani, a journalist for 30 years, approaches life with wisdom and wit. He writes frequently for ACT TWO. His most recent pieces for ACT TWO include Age Better with Positive Thinking, The Silver Tsunami, When It Comes to Love, It’s a Dog’s World and La Dolce Vita Americana.