They call it the sandwich generation, but the reality for many is crushed, flattened panini.
More working Canadians are having to care for both their kids and their older relatives. It's a squeeze that spells consequences for the workplace, from higher absenteeism and lost productivity to greater distraction and burnout.
People have always juggled family care with work. But shifting demographics suggest the challenges are mounting as the population ages, workers have children later in life, more women join the work force, and people live longer. Roughly one-fifth of professionals in the country are working and taking care of both their kids as well as an older family member, a research paper released this week estimates.
The paper was written by Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University, and the University of Western Ontario's Christopher Higgins.
The recession and changes in the labour market add another layer of pressure. Many of the pre-recession perks workplaces offered, such as free dry cleaning and daycare subsidies, evaporated during the economic downturn and haven't come back. At the same time, workloads seem to have swelled and more people are having to take work home, leaving many professionals stressed and exhausted, the study says.
It's a perfect storm for both workers and employers: Demographic trends suggest that the proportion of people juggling work, childcare and eldercare at the same time is only going to grow. And those pressures suggest employers keen on attracting and keeping staff may have to shift policies to adapt to this new reality.
The impact of doing double or triple duty on top of work is already materializing, the paper says, from missed days at work to stressed, overwhelmed workers.
The study, "Balancing work, childcare and eldercare: A view from the trenches," focuses on highly educated managers and professionals, particularly those at larger firms, and is based on a national survey of work-life balance of 25,021 employees conducted in 2011 and 2012. Of those, almost 8,000 responded to questions about caregiving, of which researchers conducted 111 follow-up phone interviews.
Workplaces hit hard
More than a quarter of caregivers cope with the pressures of work and family by bringing work home, giving up on sleep and trimming social activities on a daily basis – a response that raises the chance of employee burnout (and grumpy workers).
"People say they're short of sleep, grumpy, they take it out on customers and colleagues at work. And these are our knowledge workers ... who are expected to come in and be creative," said Prof. Duxbury, one of the paper's two authors. "This group is going to increase dramatically in size and in importance to businesses."
They're also more likely to see a drop in productivity (through distractions, fear of losing their jobs or a tougher time focusing at work) and a decline in the number of hours they can dedicate to work.
Both men and women in the sandwich category miss more days of work per year than their colleagues. Male caregivers miss 13.4 days, and female workers 19.4 days, compared with 7 days for men and 10.6 for women who aren't caregivers.
Caregivers are more likely to be absent from work, use company benefits and turn down promotions.
Some may wind up quitting, or taking a leave to fulfill family responsibilities. Others will curb their own career progress. A fifth of male and female employees who are caregivers said they have turned down promotions because their plates are too full.
Stress levels are higher among this group. Six in ten caregivers report emotional consequences of juggling work and looking after family, which include stress, anxiety and frustration.
"Employees in the sandwich generation are getting worn down by the demands on their time and lack the resilience to emotionally separate the work-life domains," the report says.
It's little wonder they're getting worn out. Six in ten employed caregivers say they work more than 45 hours a week. On top of that, parents of young children spend more than 30 hours a week on childcare, while those taking care of elders spend an average of 10.7 hours.
Gender (it's not just women)
Women are still the main caregivers, but men are increasingly likely to be caught in double or triple duty, and missing work or taking leaves as a result. Men, particularly Gen-Xers, "are also experiencing serious challenges balancing work and caregiving," and are more likely to miss work because of mental and emotional fatigue as a result.
Eight in 10 caregivers say their partner also spends time each week on family care, "a finding that suggests that caregiving is now a shared responsibility for most Canadian families."
Tasks differ by gender. Men still have longer hours in the office, and women tend to spend more time on childcare per week than men, while both genders spend roughly even amounts of time on eldercare. Women take on more "high-energy" roles than men. But male caregivers are more likely to provide financial help and do yard work, and – surprisingly – more likely to provide personal or nursing care than their female counterparts.
What employers can do
Employers keen on attracting, retaining and engaging knowledge workers may need to adjust their strategies – and understand that more men, too, are becoming caregivers. Right now, "very few employers are providing any form of support to the knowledge workers in their workforce with caregiving demands," the analysis says.
The report recommends companies introduce or expand flexible working hours and offer compressed work weeks, where an employee can, for example, work their hours over four days instead of five, leaving them one weekday for family duties.
Companies should ramp up workplace seminars and offer more employee-assistance programs, the study says. Employers that already offer subsidies for daycare should consider support for eldercare.
Managers should be empathetic about the emotional toll of caring for multiple family members, and work to remove stigma about those forced to take leaves, the study suggests.
Holly Tuokko has been sandwiched between caring for her son and her elderly parents – and had to drop work at times to care for them. She's the director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria, and predicts employers will change in the years ahead.
"Some are already taking steps as part of their policy and benefits package. ... That will grow in the future because the population of older adults is growing, so families needing to take time to deal with issues will also grow," she said.
That means flexible hours and new types of leaves for dealing with family emergencies, which will make organizations in turn more attractive to potential employees.
A personal tale
Prof. Duxbury, who has researched shifts in the workplace for more than two decades, knows first-hand what it's like to be in the sandwich generation. She teaches, researches and supervises grad students at Carleton, and also has parents in their nineties (whom she phones every night or two) and a 22-year-old daughter.
Three years ago, her father broke his hip and required surgery. She dropped work to fly to his hometown, while at the same time tried to help her daughter map out career options.
She stresses that she's luckier than most – a sister and neighbour who helps with her parents, an understanding spouse and workplace. Nonetheless, "I felt overwhelmed, really anxious ... these are situations where you have no control and that's what it makes it particularly challenging."
The number of Canadian seniors grew at more than double the pace of the whole population from 2006 to 2011 – 14.1 per cent vs. 5.9 per cent. By 2036, seniors are expected to make up 23 to 25 per cent of the population.
Need for care rising
One out of every three seniors will be 80 or older by 2036 – the most significant age group for needing care.
Shift from formal to informal care
At the same time, growing strains on the health-care system mean the elderly will need to rely more on family members. The study cites shorter hospital stays, longer wait times and higher costs for nursing homes and other professional services as contributing factors.
Supply of informal caregivers decreasing
Smaller family sizes mean fewer family members to share the responsibilities of caring for older parents, aunts, neighbours or in-laws. Add into the mix delayed parenthood among many professionals, and it looks as if more employees will become part of the sandwich generation.
Forty per cent of the 25,021 employees surveyed report high levels of overload – both at work and at home.
About 25 to 30 per cent of the caregivers interviewed say they cope with the pressures of work and family by bringing work home, giving up on sleep and trimming social activities on a daily basis.
Twenty per cent of male and female employees who are caregivers say they have turned down promotions because their plates are too full.
Sixty-three per cent of caregivers report emotional consequences from juggling work and looking after family – stress, anxiety and frustration.
Sources: "Balancing work, childcare and eldercare: A view from the trenches"; Statistics Canada