No, Flexibility Is Not a Caregiving Benefit 

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Aug 18, 2020

As I prepare for my daily virtual meeting with my team in five minutes, I pull my hair out of its messy ponytail and dab the spit-up on my shirt with water as I try to look presentable — at least from the waist up. I quickly glance at the monitor with a sigh of relief. My daughter should be sleeping for the next hour, that hour of precious uninterrupted time, which has now become my holy grail for work productivity.

I sit down on the closet floor and close the door to my “office,” the space that has transformed from where I get dressed to where I hold meetings while whispering so my daughter won’t wake up. And so my Tuesday or Wednesday — who knows or cares at this point — begins.

We are awash in a state of near-perpetual change and uncertainty that is exacerbated for working caregivers. As daycare centers and schools close from fear of COVID-19 and nursing centers become epicenters for the disease, employees are struggling to get through the day, and will continue to if things do not change.

People feel emotionally and financially stressed by caring for young children and older relatives, all while juggling work from home. The strive for work/life balance is dead as we face a real care conundrum.

Where Are Employers in All of This?

At the onset of COVID-19, many employers sprang into action to protect employees, creatively finding opportunities to keep them safe and employed in a time of crisis. Now many companies have decided to, or will soon, have employees work virtually from home for the foreseeable future.

Companies are striving for organizational resilience, embracing technological capabilities, and implementing new policies that give workers flexible options. Employee surveys are taking the emotional pulse of their people and are working to implement options to sustain a healthy and productive workforce.

Yet, with these options comes a critical secondary implication that we cannot ignore any longer. Employers need to recognize the real care challenges that employees are facing and devise dedicated care strategies and policies that meet their needs and expectations.

An Outdated Care Model

The traditional care model — relying predominantly on healthcare benefits — is archaic and has outlived its lifecycle. A cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all solution no longer works for a workforce that has diverse and ever-evolving needs. Growing care demands on employees have taken an upward trajectory over the last decade, most likely because 1 in 10 U.S. parents are caught in the sandwich generation caring for children and for older relatives at the same time.

Many of these employees have been left out of the types of benefits and services provided by employers. What the pandemic has made clear is that care benefits can no longer be seen as an afterthought or add-on perk that comes second to traditional benefits like health care. To attract and retain talent, employers need to recognize that workers’ needs have evolved — and so should the benefits that companies offer.

Employees Expect More

To alleviate employees’ childcare woes, many employers are going to what they know, offering discounted care to local care centers, as well as expanding existing back-up care. About 19% of companies have emergency and back-up care options, while only 6% are offering subsidized care options on- or near-site, according to a recent survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson in April.

But we are failing to really understand what our employees want and expect in care. Prior to COVID-19, many people with young children were struggling with settling for babysitting facilities they could afford, opting for a costly but high-touch dedicated nanny, or leaving the workforce to become full-time caregivers.

Today, parents feel they have no good options as childcare challenges drive them out of the workforce at a disturbing rate. An estimated 2 million parents gave up their career in 2016 because of childcare challenges, according to the Center for American Progress. In the COVID-19 crisis, parents do not want to send their kids to care centers or invite people outside their protective bubble into their homes.

Flexibility vs. Long-Term Care Solutions

Companies are also responding to care needs with flexibility strategies — implementing flex hours, full-time remote work, reducing work hours, offering leave, and changing expectations. While these options help, they are only Band-Aids on a deeper, swelling care problem.

According to a recent study by SHRM, 68% of companies indicated they will adopt broader or more flexible work-from-home policies for the workforce, but only 9% are considering offering childcare subsidies. Flexible work options do not alleviate caregivers’ responsibilities but are exponentially increasing their levels of stress and reducing their efficiency and focus. According to Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, during COVID-19 full-time working mothers in two-parent households are on average doing around 22 hours of child-related care a week outside their normal parenting responsibilities, in addition to maintaining their full-time jobs.

What’s more is, according to a new survey by Cleo, 1 in 5 working parents are saying that either they or their partner are considering leaving the workforce to care for their children. Flexible work and paid leave are not replacements for care benefits but short-term solutions to long-term problems.

A Carevolution

To tap into the power of the workforce and build a company of the future that is competitive, especially in a time of high turnover and low talent pools, we will need to evolve to meet working parents’ expectations — or risk losing them. We must step up with new and innovative solutions to support employees’ care needs that go beyond offering simple babysitting services or flexible work strategies. Here’s how.

Reframe work-life balance as work-life blending. While there are certainly benefits to working from home, the transition has been difficult for our working caregivers, and finding balance within their day has become more complicated. COVID-19 circumstances have accelerated the blending of work-life, leaving people feeling burnt out, overworked, and overstressed. We need to help them better manage the work-from-home environment to create a better blend.

Offer high-quality care. Providing employees with a suite of care resources and options to use with no employer subsidy is not equivalent to providing a care benefit. We must show our employees that we understand their care expectations and invest in highly impactful care options to help them feel confident leaving their family members, allowing them to better focus at work when it’s needed. These investments are logical economical options to sustain and retain top talent, especially those in high-demand technical positions.

Reallocate benefits. Employee departures cost us time, money, and other resources. Research from SHRM suggests that direct replacement costs can reach as high as 50%-60% of an employee’s annual salary, with total costs associated with turnover ranging from 90% to 200% of annual salary. While we may be scared off by the idea that care is expensive, leveraging already earmarked funding for perks or benefits that no longer offer value in our current situation and rolling care solutions into already existing wellbeing strategies could be a creative, viable option. Stipends for unique care support or high-touch virtual care options are among many new benefits that we must consider to reshape our benefits pool and budgets.

Even though we all hope “things will go back to normal,” deep down we all know the workplace landscape has evolved. This situational turn will continue to produce major business shifts, specifically in our ability to tap into new talent streams previously hamstrung by the limitation of onsite work. However, it also presents significant challenges for those unwilling to adapt and evolve to their employees’ needs and wants. Top talent will most likely leave and seek out new employers or leave the workforce altogether if we don’t evolve our care benefit model to keep a competitive edge. The workplace of the future is now, and businesses need to step up.