Speak Up or Sneak Around? Do You Tell An Employer About Your Eldercare Duties?

Last updated: July 17, 2011

Anyone who's caring for an ailing loved one needs all the help and support he or she can get, right? Yet many caregivers cut themselves off from a major source of potential stress relief by not talking about their caregiving role at the place where they spend most of their day: their workplace.

Why we don't talk about caregiving at work

Plenty of logical reasons motivate us to keep mum about helping mum (or dad, or a partner, or a grandparent). Not that they're necessarily in our best interest. Example reasons:

  • Denial: Not realizing at the outset how hairy caregiving usually gets, workers believe they can juggle everything just fine, thankyouverymuch, without anyone needing to know. Except for this: Caregiving almost always keeps getting hairier.

  • Fear of being perceived as not giving 100 percent. In these times, especially, you want to look like a workhorse without distractions. * Except for this:* Life is full of distractions -- and balancing acts. (Ask any working mom.)

  • Reluctance to look like a "mama's boy" or a "daddy's girl," rather than a professional. The nurturing image of caregiving is at direct odds with many workplace personas. Except for this: Almost all of us have mamas, daddys, and mates. Even the federal government, in Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines on best practices for dealing with caregivers, notes that it's wrong to assume male workers don't have significant caregiving responsibilities, or that women prefer that role.

  • Ignorance. It simply never occurs to many workers that there may be benefits to speaking up. Except for this: There are!

Why we should talk about caregiving at work:

I can think of five reasons you might want to speak up:

1. You're more apt to help your career than hurt it.

Being frank about the demands you're facing provides a context for why you might seem more stressed or leave early some days. You don't have to whine and shouldn't expect others to do all your work. But without a good explanation, colleagues may chalk absences or distractions up to laziness or plain old bad performance. You can't let family matters sabotage responsibilities entirely. But there's little upside to pretending they don't exist.

2. You may discover practical resources that can ease your burden.

Human resources officers, especially in larger workplaces, may be able to plug you into flextime arrangements, assistance programs (such as care provider referrals, geriatric assessments, support groups), educational programs (on, say, Alzheimer's care or stress management), and even federally mandated family leave opportunities.

It's not just altruism: Employers are realizing that supporting caregiving employees helps them retain workers and get better work from them.

3. You'll tap into hidden crowdsourcing resources right under your nose.

Boomer caregiving has been called the new "problem that has no name" -- the life-swamping issue everyone's dealing with but nobody's talking about. Mention "sick mom" or "dad has Alzheimer's" and you may be surprised, and gratified, by the kindred-spirit co-workers who come forward with tips and "what I wish I'd knowns."

4. You'll stress less with more emotional support.

Most workplaces are staffed by humans with parents and spouses (and, usually, warm hearts) of their own. Their moral support may come to mean more to you than you'd think. Plus there's this: The very act of being candid removes a major stressor, the stress of being secretive.

5. Eldercare conversations ultimately help everyone.

You're part of a vast shift in American culture. Wrestling with work and eldercare is a lot like the challenges once (and sometimes, still) faced by working mothers. The more we talk about the realities of the intersections of where life and work meet, the more likely we are to find solutions. And that benefits all workers, all employers, and, ultimately, all of our loved ones who need help.

Does (or did) your employer know? Up sides? Down sides? Pointers for others?

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4 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

Anonymous said about 3 years ago

I shared my caregiving with my friends at work, and with those whom I knew would be discrete and supportive. This does not include everyone, as there are some superiors who could chose to use this information when found out in a vindictive manner-changing one's schedule to make it as inconvenient as possible for me to continue working. At one point in time, I had been working flex time-a mutually agreed upon split shift, which was not interfering with either my productivity, or the quality of my net job results. This option was taken back form me by someone who just wanted to make a name for themself, and I was forced into working later and later shifts, which interfered with my ability to provide the best care and transportation for my loved one. I did not want to be perceived as a slacker or whiner, and I believe I overextended myself unnecessarily in the workplace. I encourage you to use every resource available to take care of both your loved one and yourself-this will benefit your entire family. I wish I had known about this website years ago!

about 3 years ago

I would have lost my mind, my job, my home, and my family if I had remained secretive about my caregiving 'job'. I have been caregiving for over 5 years now - 2.5 years for my husband (severe stroke - frontal lobe - logic), 6 months with my parents AND my husband, then the death of my husband (unexpected), now 2 years with 'just' my parents (both Alzheimer's and other health issues - 90 years old now). The time prior to my becoming a caregiver is a very dim memory - hard to remember the last time I didn't have to have a phone on me or near me, having to talk someone through a simple task that they used to do without thinking. It is at times rewarding, at other times heart-breaking. It is important to recognize that caregiving is a choice, and it is the straight and narrow path when done appropriately.

over 3 years ago

I can't imagine being secretive at work about my husband's Alz. It's stressful enough without trying to hide what's going on in my life. Because I'm an excellent employee the rest of the time, the company is extremely understanding about those times I need to leave early or come in late due to problems. My boss always says "Do what you need to do." Without them knowing the situation, they would think I'm oversleeping when I'm late or skipping out when I leave early. I'm also finding great opportunities to educate my coworkers when they ask about my husband. Most people think Alz affects only memory and have no clue about everything else until I ask them, "What parts of your body does your brain control? If you lost half of your brain function, what would that do to your daily life?" Then the light bulb goes on... Ah! The brain controls motor skills, language skills, swallowing, breathing, and so on! My boss also brought me the form for reduced cost for company insurance since my husband is on Medicare. If he hadn't knownabout my husband, I'd still be paying more than I have to. And my coworkers have been very supportive. They rarely bring it up but are there for me if I want to talk. They understand if I sneak off to the ladies room to cry on really bad days. Because they know, they actually admire me for balancing a good job at work with all the extras at home, and understand if I goof up something a little at work when things are going badly at home. Without everyone knowing what's going on, they'd just think I was a bad worker with weird issues!

Anonymous said over 3 years ago

Speaking up at work helped me learn about the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and this has been a tremendous benefit as I have been caregiving two counties away from my home.

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