National strategy needed for unpaid caregivers in the workplace
One in every three workers in Canada is assisting a chronically disabled person – many of them seniors – with transportation, household maintenance or day-to-day tasks, according to a recently released federal report.
The 6.1 million employed workers who are providing such care, free of charge, to a family member or friend are more likely to experience interruptions at work and to arrive late or even be absent from work. Many are less available than they would otherwise be to work overtime, travel for work or advance their careers.
The impacts of informal caregiving commitments are felt in the Canadian workplace and reduce productivity. They translate into 2.2 million hours of reduced workplace time every week and cause an estimated $1.3 billion productivity loss annually, says the report.
With the anticipated growing numbers of seniors requiring care, the costs of unpaid caregiving and reduced productivity will likely expand over the next two decades. What should we do about them?
It only makes sense that employers should be the first to recognize and support informal caregiving. Some already offer flexible arrangements (e.g., compressed work weeks, work from home, unpaid and even paid leaves) to employees with caregiving commitments. Not all employers are equally supportive, and many Canadian workers with caregiving responsibilities are paying the price: reduced income, career limitations and exit from the labour force.
A year ago, the federal government established the Employer Panel for Caregivers, which consulted with employers to help them find ways to better support their employee caregivers. The consultation assumed that unpaid care will remain the main source of long-term care in this country.
It found that while employer support to employee caregivers may foster workplace engagement and retention, there might not be a business case for many employers to voluntary engage in it. In other words, moral appeal and compassion for employee caregivers will not translate into a massive, spontaneous movement in the Canadian workplace to address the issue.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Canadian policymakers to ignore their own essential role – beyond that of offering limited and sporadic supports – to address the issue.
Confronted with a similar situation, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have, in recent years, adopted national caregiver strategies. At home, Manitoba and Nova Scotia are leading, but efforts across the country remain fragmented and inconsistent.
Canada can do better.
A national strategy needs integrated policy instruments to support caregivers and their employers. First, Canada’s workplace legislation, which is primarily a provincial jurisdiction, needs to ensure minimum standards to protect workers with caregiving commitments. Second, we also need a comprehensive set of financial instruments – possibly a combination of private or public programs – to better protect the workers’ incomes and their employers’ productivity losses. Third, more substantial coverage of homecare, nursing care and supportive services for the disabled is an essential component that would benefit everyone.
Policymakers still need to recognize the undeniable costs of unpaid caregiving. So the real question is: How should these costs be shared?
Caregivers are already contributing a lot: A study estimated that if governments had to pay for caregiving provided free of charge by people 45 and older in this country, it would have cost about $25 billion in 2009.
Some argue that governments should compensate caregivers. I don’t think they should. But governments do need to ensure that while providing unpaid caregiving, workers never incur catastrophic income losses or lose their jobs as a result.
Financial and in-kind supports are critical, especially when caregiving commitments extend to several hours a week over a long period of time. This should be covered by public programs.
Only a coherent national strategy will allow Canadian workers looking after a spouse or relative to better focus on their work, their employers to better focus on their mission and disabled persons to get the care they need.
By Nicole Bernier
Nicole F. Bernier is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and research director of the Faces of Aging program at the Institute for Research on Public Policy.