Are Your Workers Doubling as Caregivers? How COVID-19 Is Forcing Employers to Rethink Leave Policies

By: | June 16, 2020

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended expectations and behaviors in a remarkably short period of time.

“Unprecedented,” “new normal” and “pivot” are words I have used frequently over the last several months. We will remember these words years from now and will associate them with this point in time.

For many people, health and life have been at the forefront of their thoughts. For others, steady work is their top concern.

For those who have retained employment, the way work is performed has dramatically changed. Social distancing, masks, gloves and other additions to equipment and procedures are the new normal. Work-from-home has taken on a whole new meaning.

According to DMEC’s most recent COVID-19 Pulse Survey, of the more than 600 employers, about 20% of the companies’ employees worked remotely prior to the pandemic. As of early April, 70% of surveyed organizations’ employees are working from home. Some of our members have reported 100% working remotely.

Years of change have been compressed into months. But as different as all that is, it’s the tip of the iceberg.

Bringing work home full-time, often under stay-at-home orders, has dramatically impacted family relationships and caregiving.

The New State of Caregiving and FMLA

There are undoubted advantages to a different work pace — no commute and potentially more relaxed interpersonal relations.

But now employees must also manage children whose schools have closed and switched to distance learning. Also, spouses or significant others are working from home, and other unexpected caregiving has arisen for at-risk family and community members.

All of these changes can be overwhelming, and of course, this is compounded if a family member becomes ill or passes away.

Many people are surprised to learn that virtually no laws cover bereavement leave. The Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA) and Illinois Child Bereavement Leave Act are notable outliers, and other states like Massachusetts have considered such laws. But they are the exceptions.

While few laws directly address bereavement leave, others indirectly do. For example, an employee may already be on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other family leave for family caregiving responsibilities when a family member passes away.

This type of situation may involve intersecting laws and benefits if an individual is unable to return to work due to a mental condition triggered by grief.

But for most employees, if they want take time off to grieve a loss, available leave depends on employer policy. The good news is, at least among full-time employees, bereavement leave is common, and a high percentage of employers offer bereavement as an additional employee benefit.

The pandemic has given cause for employers to review and revise these policies. For example, a typical reason for taking bereavement leave is to attend a service for the deceased. Yet in most places, the coronavirus is preventing many funeral gatherings and travel. Employers need to find ways to accommodate these realities. This includes greater flexibility for how bereavement leave can be used and relaxing documentation requirements.

We don’t know yet how this restricted grief process will impact mental health. But we can be almost certain it will. Employers need to make sure online mental health services are available to employees who take bereavement leave. This includes access for any family members who may require it.

Update Your Bereavement Policies

Updated bereavement leave policies are but one part of a larger need to rethink caregiving and work-life balance when children — often including adult children — are in the home, engaged in distance learning, and restricted in their other relationships and activities.

Here are some policies and benefits to consider:

Work from Home. For months to come, children will spend more time at home. Camps, sports, and even casual playdates with neighborhood friends are all up in the air. While some employees can hire caregivers, many others cannot. They are spending more time at home to care for children.

That means extended remote work. This will likely happen anyway as social distancing and safety protocols change, existing office configurations are redesigned, and companies evaluate cost-efficiencies that can be gained from moving away from traditional office workspaces. Employers will need to explore how remote work gels with employee caregiving responsibilities and develop updated policies that work for everyone.

Elder Benefits. Along with more adult-age children, more adult parents are living with employees. This is primarily a function of the impact of the coronavirus on elder care facilities. It also has to do with reduced retirement security, which we’ve probably only begun to see play out. If not a wholesale shift, we may see at least some kind of return to what was standard until recent times — the multigenerational household.

Employers should consider reviewing options for elder care benefits. This could include subsides for in-home care, identification and communication of respite care resources, access to mental and behavioral health assistance programs, and more.

Mental and Behavioral Health. Work can be stressful. Caring for others, as much joy as it gives, can also be stressful. Performed in the same space, with little opportunity to engage in normal activities outside the home creates a recipe for high stress and anxiety.

Employers need to become more proactive in helping employees and their households deal with the mental stresses of a reconfigured home, work, and school. This means regular messaging from the top, easily accessible employee assistance programs, and other resource such as webinars where activities are geared toward groups as well as individual employees.

Caregiving has been redefined. Employees are engaged in a new level and intensity of caregiving, and it looks like it will continue in some form for the foreseeable future.

Working from home can be more productive than working in an office, but employers need to be on the lookout for burnout and stress associated with trying to work and care for families. That means balancing the needs of work and family.

There is no play book for any of this, but employers should look for proactive and creative ways to increase awareness and reduce the risks of the virus-shaped reality that is now the backdrop for everything we do. &

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