Up until fairly recently employee caregiving was a topic that received minimal attention, but in 2012 during a first round of consultation with Canadian employers, the Honorable Alice Wong, Minister of State (Seniors) began hearing of the significant challenges employers were facing with their employees trying to balance work with the demands of caring for aging parents, spouses or children with severe health issues. These employers expressed their desire to be more proactive and supportive, but were feeling stuck with a lack of known best practices and cost-benefit analysis around the topic.

Given our aging population employee caregiving is a challenge we will likely all face both personally and professionally in our workplaces. On the employer side, the Conference Board of Canada estimates that informal caregiving costs employers $1.28 billion annually as a result of caregivers missing work, quitting, or losing their jobs. On the employee side, there is much anecdotal data regarding the severe emotional and financial strains that caregiving scenarios trigger.

As a result of these early discussions with employers, Minister Wong created the Canadian Employers for Caregivers Plan (CECP) and established an Employer Panel for Caregivers, tasked with the collection of best practices and experiences of employers across the country who are seeking to support their employees faced with this challenge. This data will be compiled into a final report to be released in December 2014.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to join this panel in spring of 2014 and our official kick off was in June.  Over the summer the panel has been working to meet this mandate.

One of the recent panel activities was a roundtable that my fellow panel member Vickie Cammack and I organized to give local employers an opportunity to share their experiences and best practices around employee caregiving with each other as well as having the conversation recorded for inclusion in the panel’s end of year report.

The evening was a lively success and resulted in some great data, anecdotes and idea generation. A couple main themes emerged. The first theme was that employers supporting employees in their caregiving challenges was really a more extreme version of offering flexible work arrangements and some existing leave taking scenarios. The second theme was an interesting reflection on the impact corporate culture can have; that collecting best practices and attaching a cost-benefit analyses to them would be very helpful to further encourage organizations who had already embraced the power of flexible work arrangements, but those two items on their own would do little to move an organization from a non-flexible culture to a flexible one.

The main emerging trait of a flexible culture appeared to be high degrees of trust – trust in employees to act responsibly, trust in employers to be acting from a place of integrity. (As an aside, I’ve found the following to useful discussions of both of these areas: Cali Ressler’s and Jody Thompson’s Results-Only Work Environments and Stephen Covey’s Speed of Trust.)

Hot on the heels of the Vancouver roundtable success, we’re now planning for a session in the coming weeks in Calgary and possibly Toronto. There is also a survey available to all employers who would like to add their voices to this conversation – the survey is open until October 3. The survey is only four questions long and it would be great for us to receive as much feedback through that channel as possible.

In caregiving circles, the saying is that finding yourself in a position of needing to look after a seriously ill family member or friend is sadly not a question of “if” but “when.” The intention is that by elevating our national awareness and knowledge sharing among employers, we can move our approach to employee caregiving into the same high standards that we currently apply to maternity and parental leave, and give employees some respite when they need it most.

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