Harvard Study: 3 in 4 US Workers Say Caregiving Responsibilities Affect Their Productivity

Harvard Study: 3 in 4 US Workers Say Caregiving Responsibilities Affect Their Productivity

In recent years, business leaders have become increasingly aware of the caregiving burdens affecting their employees’ lives and, by extension, their organizations. At the same time millennials, who make up the largest generational cohort in the workforce, are settling down and starting families, the baby boomer generation is aging and imposing additional elder care responsibilities on their gen-X and millennial children. In recognition of this burden, many progressive organizations have expanded their leave and flexibility offerings for employees with family caregiving responsibilities, but not all employees enjoy these benefits, particularly in the US, where there is no statutory parental leave entitlement.

A major new report from Harvard Business School underscores the significant toll this caregiving burden places on employees’ productivity, which employers may be underestimating. In their report, The Caring Company, Harvard Business School professor Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman, program director of the school’s Young American Leaders Program, surveyed 1,500 employees and 300 HR leaders to gauge the impact of caregiving responsibilities on workers’ performance, the extent to which employers recognize this effect, the benefits employers are offering to help employees manage these obligations, and how these benefits are being used.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • 80 percent of employees with caregiving responsibilities said caregiving affected their productivity, but only 24 percent of employers thought caregiving influenced performance, and 52 percent of employers don’t measure the extent of their employees’ caregiving burdens. Employers recognize, however, that work issues such as unplanned absences, late arrivals and early departures from work — which often arise as a result of caregiving obligations — negatively affect employees’ career progression.
  • 32 percent of all employees said they had voluntarily left a job during their career due to caregiving responsibilities. The impact is particularly acute among millennial employees: 50 percent of employees aged 26-35 and 27 percent of employees aged 18-25 said they had already left a job due to caregiving responsibilities.
  • Among those who had left a job, 57 percent said they had done so to take care of a newborn or adopted child, 49 percent to care for a sick child, 43 percent to manage a child’s needs, 32 percent to take care of an elder family member, and nearly 25 percent left to take care of an ill or disabled family member. The most common reasons they gave for leaving their jobs were that they could not find or afford paid help, or because they were unable to meet their work responsibilities and provide care at the same time.

  • The benefits offered to caregiving employees are often underutilized or misaligned with their needs. Across 16 benefits examined, the report states, “usage patterns were consistently and often woefully low.” The benefit with the highest usage reported by employers was paid time off, but only 55 percent of eligible employees used this benefit and only 59 percent of they employers surveyed said they offered it. Maternity leave was offered by 60 percent of organizations surveyed, but only utilized by 28 percent of eligible employees, while the most commonly offered benefit, flexible hours, was offered at 65 percent of the organizations surveyed but only 39 percent of eligible employees reported taking advantage of it.

“U.S. firms are facing a caregiving crisis and refuse to acknowledge it. They are oblivious to the growing costs of the care economy and that is hurting them and their employees,” Fuller said in a news release from Harvard Business School. “It is clear that firms can gain a competitive advantage by investing in a care culture. But first they need to recognize the problem and implement a deliberate care strategy to support their employees.”

To address what they describe as a caregiving crisis among the US workforce, the report’s co-authors urge employers to begin looking at caregiving support as a talent management issue, rather than a line item in their benefits budgets. In keeping with the truism “what gets measured gets done,” organizations should conduct a “care census” to gauge the impact of caregiving on their workforce, not only to better understand the needs of employees who are doing double duty as caregivers, but also to get a better sense of what these challenges are costing the organization in turnover and lost productivity.

“What they’re going to find I believe is there are some really good returns associated with offsetting some of these problems,” Fuller told the Wall Street Journal, adding that this could spur the development of new and innovative solutions to help organizations support employee caregivers more effectively and efficiently.

Providing a more inclusive work environment for caregivers is about more than just the benefits they are offered, however. In the absence of a supportive “care culture” at work, employees with these responsibilities fear that they will be penalized in their careers if they so much as reveal to their employers that they are caregivers or that this is causing them to struggle at work. This helps explain why employees don’t take advantage of benefits designed for caregivers even at companies that offer them: They still fear it will reflect poorly on them if they take time off or use flexible work arrangements. Accordingly, the report stresses that employers need to do more to demonstrate that they really care about their caregivers:

In a “caring company,” management will have to demonstrate commitment both by acknowledging its employees’ care concerns and by investing in innovative solutions. It will require buying into a culture of care, an investment that goes beyond dollars to include time and leadership. By highlighting success stories and putting genuine effort into communicating with the workforce, providing benefits that address the actual needs of colleagues, and ensuring their utilization, caring companies can greatly enhance the effectiveness of their talent management.