The Healthcare Time Bomb Facing Small Businesses

As more of your workers take on the stressful burden of caring for aging parents, learn how to help them cope.
Contributing Writer,
July 20, 2012

Last week I wrote on this site about whether women business owners (and their employees) can really “have it all” in terms of work-life balance. While the topic of women juggling work and child care has been the subject of millions of articles, blogs and impassioned discussions, there’s another issue that’s about to become just as big, but is getting a lot less attention. I’m talking about eldercare.

The aging of America is impacting small businesses in many ways, one of which is the growing number of small-business owners and employees who are dealing with a new kind of juggling: caring for elderly parents while trying to take care of business, too. An article in the Chicago Tribune cited some alarming statistics:

  • The number of U.S. workers caring for either one or both parents has tripled in the past 15 years.
  • Nearly 10 million adult children over age 50 care for an aging parent.
  • U.S. companies lose more than $17 billion a year due to absenteeism and other caregiving-related factors.

Eldercare issues are a particularly big concern for small businesses, because they have fewer employees and suffer more when a team member is underperforming. I’ve witnessed the challenges this issue causes, both as a manager of employees facing eldercare issues and, on a more personal level, when my aging father faced several health crises before he passed away a few months ago. Eldercare is a big issue that’s not going away. Like an iceberg lurking under the surface of the ocean, it could threaten to destroy our businesses if we don’t acknowledge it exists and do something about it. Here are three steps you can take to help your employees—and your business.

Be Aware

Employees facing eldercare issues often don’t talk about it—mostly because if they do, they’ll cry. It’s cute and fun to tell coworkers you were up until 4 a.m. changing your fussy newborn’s diapers and getting him back to sleep, but heartbreaking to admit you were up until 4 a.m. trying to diaper your dementia-afflicted mother and keeping her from wandering out the front door.

As a small-business owner, you may be close enough to your employees to know when big issues are taking place in their lives. If you’re not, make sure your managers have their ears to the ground and are sensitive to spot the telltale signs someone is caring for an elderly relative (like exhaustion, lots of private phone calls or frequent last-minute absences). Finally, most important, make sure your staff knows they can come to you with eldercare challenges.

Be Accommodating

Develop systems to help employees involved in eldercare get their work done while still handling their family responsibilities. This can include:

  • Giving them flextime options
  • Allowing them to work remotely
  • Offering job sharing
  • Letting them use sick days for personal reasons
  • Allowing them to take a few hours at a time off to take a parent to the doctor instead of having to call in sick for the whole day

These types of accommodations, of course, need to be extended to your whole team—not just those with eldercare issues—or you could be setting your business up for discrimination lawsuits. (It’s also important to understand how the Family and Medical Leave Act affects your workplace; find out more at the Department of Labor website.)

Create a policy for whatever types of schedules you set up and make sure everyone understands it. Bonus benefit: Offering flexibility not only makes life easier for your employees dealing with eldercare, it also makes your company a more desirable workplace for all employees.

Offer Support Systems

If your workplace has a large percentage of employees dealing with eldercare issues, you may want to provide additional support. Ideas include:

  • Hosting a brown-bag lunch with speakers from senior agencies in your community to discuss local caregiving services
  • Providing resources such as directing employees to websites that can help them with eldercare issues. The National Care Planning CouncilNational Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator are three good ones
  • Letting employees start their own eldercare support group to meet at lunch in your offices, maybe with a facilitator from a local support agency

Even something as simple as providing a private space where employees can go to vent or make personal phone calls during their breaks can relieve the strain on your workers.

Helping your employees cope with eldercare issues is the right thing to do—and something your employees will value both in the short- and long-term.

Rieva Lesonsky is a small-business advocate, journalist and best-selling author specializing in small business and entrepreneurship.