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Caregivers try mightily to balance caregiving, work, family life

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

Some businesses proudly market their "family-friendly" workplace and policies. Other companies market work-life balance when recruiting prospective employees. While the words "family" and "life balance" may be successful marketing lures, there may be a significant gap in what the terminology means to businesses versus what it means to employees and applicants.

State of Utah Leads the Way in the Public Sector

In the Summer of 2008, then-Utah Governor John Huntsman led the way for the State of Utah to implement that state's Working 4 Utah Initiative. In 2010, Working 4 Utah remains a state and employee friendly workplace initiative. Fast-forward to Utah's current Governor, Gary R. Herbert. The state Web site displays the following message:

"The Governor's Office participates in the State's Working 4 Utah initiative.
Our hours are: Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Fridays."

Benefits in Employment Differ

My paid employment experience includes private and public sector employers. Among some private sector employers 4-day work weeks are nothing new. Theoretically, at least, decisions to flex work schedules for workers, if carefully planned, also may contribute to lower overhead costs, including lower electricity use and reduced need for ancillary support services, such as custodial and maintenance staff.

In the 1990's on-site gyms were all the rage as one perk of private sector employment. In an April 2010 article published by Business Week, "The Increasing Call for Work-Life Balance," reportedly fewer than 20 percent of employees actually value on-site gyms as benefits at work. The article, written by the staff of the Corporate Executive Board, suggests that "the most appreciated service" organizations can provide to their workers is the "gift of time."

I wholeheartedly agree.

Employee and Family-Friendly Workplaces

In the State of Texas' public sector workplace, my most progressive family-friendly workplace bar none, has been the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts office. In the 1990's, the Texas Comptroller's Office developed a well-written telecommuting policy for select comptroller's office positions. Among other progressive and employee-focused benefits, a small, private room was set aside for lactating mothers to use during their workday if needed.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP's)

Back then, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at the Texas Comptroller's office rivaled private sector EAP's, providing counseling on a sliding scale fee for active employees, grief counseling and more. Employees who used the EAP were allowed a modest amount of time each month to meet with their EAP counselors. In stark contrast to my Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts family-friendly workplace experience, I have worked for employers where EAP's were first on the cost-cutting chopping block.

Cost-Cutting in the New Economy: 2010 and Beyond

Just as America's aging population is burgeoning, businesses are doing more with less, and cutting costs wherever possible. For some employers, EAP's were the first programs slashed to help businesses contain costs.

American workers are feeling more pressure and less stable about their job security prospects. While juggling more responsibilities on the job, many workers are also juggling more in their personal lives, including eldercare responsibilities. Some employees don't want to rock the boat at work by invoking their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA.)

Public and private sector employers have jumped on the employee fitness bandwagon in an effort to lower employee medical costs. Fitness is a healthy business, personal and public service message goal. Regardless of how fit American workers may be, there are still only 24 hours in a day, and only so much one employee will be able to accomplish and produce.

For the so-called "Sandwich Generation," and others who quietly fulfill family caregiving roles to elders and others, in addition to competitive wages, employers may best support an aging workforce with flexible schedules, job sharing flexibility and time off benefits for superior performance.

Something has to give. Last I checked, the vast majority of American workers are already giving, including as primary caregivers on the home front.

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