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Employee Wellness Programs for Family Caregivers: Not Just a Nice Idea, but a Sound Investment

12/10/2012 04:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2013

About 60% of American family caregivers are employed. Of those who are employed, 66% have had to make some adjustments to their work life -- from arriving late to work, to giving up work entirely -- and 20% have had to take a leave of absence. Caregiving takes a physical, mental and emotional toll on the caregiver, so with such a large percentage of people caring for their loved ones, corporate America also has taken a hit: Businesses lose about $34 billion annually as a result of employees caregiving for family members age 50 or older and corporations also pay 8% more in health care costs, worth $13.4 billion per year, as a result of employees caregiving for elderly individuals.

Meanwhile, our population is aging rapidly and living longer. Beginning January 1, 2011, the first of over 78 million baby boomers began turning 65. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 107 million Americans -- 31% of the population -- will be over 55 in 2030 and that 70 million Americans -- 20% of the population -- will be 65 and over that same year. As America ages rapidly, it is reasonable to expect that the demand for family caregivers will increase exponentially.

For these reasons, experts note, corporations need to become aware of and responsive to the needs of family caregivers -- not only for the sake of the caregiver's wellness, but for the sake of the corporation's bottom dollar.

"There is a significant lack of programs today that recognize the stress that more and more employees deal with when having to become a parent to their parents," says Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Corporate Health and Wellness Association. "As the baby boomers continue to age, their children are going to be faced with this stress. Employers need to begin to recognize this source of stress and the impact it can have on employee absenteeism and presenteeism."

While absenteeism has received attention in management science for years, the idea of presenteeism is a relatively new concept, defined as working while ill or staying at work beyond the time needed for effective performance on the job. Companies are becoming interested in the impact of how "present" and focused employees are at work, when they are distracted with outside stressors. "If you have high-performing employees who can't perform at their top level, due to increasingly high stress at home, that impacts the product," explains Stephano.

For now, says Kenneth Pelletier, Ph.D., MD(hc), founder of the Corporate Health Improvement Program (CHIP), "companies are doing things the way they have always been done. It's about inertia: Corporations are becoming more aware of the aging population. The problem is how long it takes to get from that awareness to program implementation."

Fortunately, Pelletier notes, studies such as those conducted by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine are providing new data on presenteeism -- which in turn can motivate corporations to put caregiver wellness programs in place. "The question is, what is the cost if corporations do nothing?" says Pelletier. To date, he emphasizes, over 200 studies have been conducted on corporate wellness programs, all of which have shown an increased return on investment (ROI).

It is no surprise, then, that according to the Center for Health Affairs, about 88 percent of large companies with over 200 employees, and almost half of smaller companies, had employee wellness programs in place by 2008. Similarly, experts agree, employers need to have a strategy in place to deal with family caregiving issues, before these issues drain the employees' mental health and wellbeing. "With support, the [caregivng] employees will be better able to report to work and be present while they are there," says Stephano.

Pelletier and Stephano advise that flex-time programs, independent of sick leave programs, are critical in providing family caregivers the time they need to take care of their loved ones. "Many employers give employees time off to go to their children's plays, fields trips, etc.," says Stephano. "These same employers should consider giving employees time off for caring for their aging parents."

Pelletier and Stephano further advise that corporations should provide work-from-home options; caregiver support groups; on-site day care for children; and professional guidance in selecting assisted living facilities -- thus saving employees the time involved in doing the research themselves. The added perk to corporations, besides increasing the bottom dollar? "A workforce that feels that their employer has the wellbeing of themselves and their family as a priority," concludes Stephano, "will be more loyal and work harder when times are tough."