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Self Caring

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

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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?