Talking About Caregiving at Work: What You Need to Know

How to identify and address the stigma around caregiving conversations at work

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- Posted on Oct 12, 2018

Two women discussing caregiving roles in the workplace.

Lisa Weitzman, LISW-S, is a Care Consultant and Assistant Master Trainer at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

If you’re taking care of an older loved one or friend, you are not alone. Did you know that one in six employed Americans report assisting with the care of an older loved one? And there will be more caregivers in your office in the future. Studies estimate that by 2020, 40 percent of our workforce expects to be care providers for an older adult (Peggie R. Smith, "Elder Care, Gender, and Work: The Work-Family Issue of the 21st Century," 25 Berkeley J. Emp. & Lab. L. 351, 2004). And, millennials, who now make up almost 25 percent of this population, will take on these new roles too.  

Despite the shared experience of being caregivers, many people are reluctant to talk about caregiving at work. Why? The answer is stigma.

What is Stigma?

While you may be familiar with the term, understanding stigma, both what it is and how it makes us feel, offers some insight into why talking about caregiving can be challenging.

· Psychologists define stigma as the discomfort experienced when we act in ways viewed as unusual.

· Stigma causes us to feel less than “normal,” and can negatively impact our self-esteem, which may isolate us socially and/or professionally.

· Stigma interferes with our ability to advocate for ourselves – and thus it can become a workplace issue.

What Does Stigma About Caregiving Look Like?

Have you ever heard conversations in the hallways or break room at work about taking care of an older relative? Has someone brought up the topic in casual conversation before a work meeting? Chances are the answer is no. It’s much more likely you’ll hear conversations about an issue with children, like too much screen time, rather than the challenges of caring for an older loved one. Part of the reason that co-workers don’t share their concerns and challenges as caregivers is they may be afraid to do so.

No matter how much you plan and prepare, demands of caregiving can require flexibility, especially from supervisors. It’s not surprising that some people don’t talk about caregiving challenges, and the flexibility in schedules that may be required to respond to caregiving responsibilities. They may be worried about job security.

It’s understandable. Even if you’ve had great performance reviews, you may fear being passed over for a promotion, demoted, harassed or even fired simply based on assumptions about what you’ll need to do as a caregiver. It’s not a hypothetical concern. Some women who are also caregivers choose to leave their jobs because they feel that they cannot live up to workplace expectations of constant availability and rigid schedules.

At the same time, some men who care for their older loved ones believe they may be perceived as weak, lazy, or less capable employees (Anna Miller, Stigma Hinders Workplace Flexibility, Reports Special Issue, American Psychological Association, 44 (2013).

How Can We Overcome the Stigma?

Through commitment and advocacy, it is possible to reduce the effects of stigma surrounding caregiving. There are several things we can do to create compassionate workplaces and support working caregivers: 

1. Engage in dialogue about the sometimes complex and individualized experiences of working caregivers.

2. Help supervisors understand and respond to unexpected caregiving responsibilities that arise during working hours.  

3. Advocate for workplace discussion around support for working caregivers. 

Ultimately, creating a community which respects and supports each individual’s unique caregiving experience will not only help to break down the stigma, but it will also go far in the effort to support working caregivers, reduce the negative work-related effects of caregiving and improve overall well-being.

View more caregiving tips and information about an available program to support working caregivers across the U.S., developed and delivered by the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

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