When Jennifer Levin’s father was diagnosed six years ago with a degenerative neurological disease, she began trying to manage his care in New York from her home base in Los Angeles.
Just 32 at the time, Levin didn’t tell any of her colleagues about her dad. She worked in the writers’ room for a successful television show, and she was worried that letting people know that she had become her father’s caregiver could hurt her career just as it was getting off the ground.
“I didn’t want anyone to think I was distracted,” says Levin, now 38. “I was in an industry where a lot of people would easily take my seat.”
During weekend trips and longer visits between seasons, she was able to manage her father’s care from afar for the next two years before he died of the disease, known as Progressive Supra-Nuclear Palsy. It was a heavy responsibility that Levin carried silently. In 2017, she started a Facebook group called Caregiver Collective to help other younger caregivers feel less isolated. The site has nearly 400 members.
Millennials, who now make up the largest generation in the workforce, account for one in four family caregivers. There are about 10 million millennial caregivers, a number that’s expected to grow as their parents start hitting their 70s and 80s and require more assistance in their day-to-day lives.
In today’s tight job market, companies that can support those caregivers will benefit from a loyal workforce and a stronger employer brand to attract talent. But many employers are not aware that they exist.
“The biggest challenge for millennial caregivers who are caring for older family members is that people in the workplace don’t expect it,” says Sarah Fleisch Fink, general counsel and director of workplace policy for the nonprofit National Partnership for Women & Families. “Millennials are certainly part of that sandwich generation, caring for adults and young children, but people still think of that as hitting an older demographic.”
And younger caregivers are less likely to speak up about what they need. While six in 10 older caregivers tell their supervisors that they are family caregivers, fewer than half of millennials do, according to AARP.
Even in retrospect, Levin says she wouldn’t have told her employer about her family obligations. While she wasn’t worried about losing her job, she was concerned that she might be perceived as distracted from her work.
“From the time I went through this experience until now, I haven’t seen much in that landscape change to convince me that I would handle it any differently,” she says.
Career issues come up often in the Facebook group, Levin says. She says that she hears from millennial caregivers who are concerned about their job security. Some are terrified about missing work for caregiving emergencies not covered by family leave laws. Others are worried that they are falling behind in their careers.
“There are people who are frustrated because they can never network with colleagues or socialize with coworkers after work because they need to be home for their family members,” Levin says. “Even if they are able to find a spare hour or two, they feel incredibly guilty doing it.”
Levin is advocating for family caregiving to be included in paid leave programs. And there’s plenty more that employers can do. Here are some of the ways that employers can support the younger caregivers in their ranks:
Create a culture of caregiving
Offering policies like paid family leave, flexible scheduling, and the ability to telecommute are key to giving workers the ability to meet their family obligations. These are policies that workers – in particular millennial workers – find valuable for a variety of reasons, and research shows that there is a bottom-line financial benefit to offering them. A 2016 study found that for every dollar invested in flextime, companies saw a return of $1.70 to $4.34. And for every dollar invested in telecommuting, there was an return on investment of between $2.46 and $4.45.
Just having the policies on the books, however, doesn’t mean eligible workers are taking advantage of them.
“You have to communicate it pretty frequently to your workforce,” says Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the caregiver support service Caregiving Club. “You may have employees who aren’t caregivers right now, so they’re not paying attention to it because it’s not relevant. But in six months, they might be a caregiver.”
Since millennials are digital natives, providing information—as well as services themselves—via digital platforms can make it easier to reach them. While only 15% of companies currently offer digital caregiving support tools, nearly 90% of those who don’t said that they’d be interested in doing so, according to research from the Northeast Business Group on Health.
Companies should also make sure that human resources staff and frontline managers receive training on how to support caregivers.
Provide holistic support
Employee assistance programs help employees understand caregiving options and vet various providers. That can save valuable time for millennial employees, who may not have much experience navigating the long-term care system and lack a network of peers with referrals.
It’s also helpful when employers have financial wellness and mental health benefits. Larger employers can support on-site or virtual support caregiving support groups to help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. Younger workers can also benefit from mentor and sponsorship programs, in which older employees help younger workers create a career path that takes advantage of benefits and balances their caregiving obligations.
“The majority of people can balance the stress of caregiving along with their workload, but they need support in order to do that,” says Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care services for Care.com.
Understand the specific needs of employees
Fewer than half of employers survey their workers to collect information on their caregiving responsibilities. Understanding those costs and needs can allow for the creation of policies and programs specific to a company’s workforce. The most needed policies will vary depending on the age, financial status, location and industry for employees.
“There’s a disconnect between what the employers offer and what employees feel are impactful,” Snelling says. “There has to be a better understanding within the top brass and the HR department about whether what they’re doing is working.”
Beth Braverman is an award-winning freelance journalist and content producer, writing mostly about personal finance, parenting, and careers.