An estimated 17 to 20 percent of all American workers spend 20 hours or so per week caring for an aging elder.
Within about five years, as baby boomers continue to age and ail, nearly half of all workers are projected to have caregiving responsibilities.
Without understanding and flexibility from businesses, experts say, those workers may be less productive, more stressed and more costly to their employers.
"There are huge economic consequences for businesses and our communities if we don't recognize the value and provide support for our caregivers," says Stephanie Bender-Kitz, who heads the Boise nonprofit Friends in Action.
But little is known about how businesses and workers are dealing with this trend in Idaho and beyond, she says.
"I think for the most part this is not really on the radar screen of businesses in our community," Bender-Kitz says. "And I think that is largely because many employee caregivers have concerns about losing their jobs.
"Many employees are not aware of resources their employer can offer, and many managers don't realize they have employees who need this."
Friends in Action, which provides workshops for caregivers and services for elders, recently received a $10,000 grant - one of five the National Alliance for Caregiving awarded nationwide - to develop a pilot program for workplace elder care and caregiving education.
The project is still in its early stages, but Bender-Kitz hopes to gauge the needs in the local work force and develop strategies for meeting those needs.
"We estimate there are 40,000 family caregivers in the Treasure Valley, and at least 60 percent are working," she says. That's at least 24,000 workers.
Businesses that meet caregivers' needs are rewarded by much more than good will, Bender-Kitz says.
According to national studies, she says, "the average cost per employee, taking into account absenteeism, turnover, and being distracted at work, is about $2,100 per year." And health care costs average about 8 percent higher for caregivers, she says.
Flexibility and communication can reduce stress and illness among caregivers and improve productivity and attitudes, she says.
VALLEY BUSINESSES EMBRACE FLEXIBILITY
Some local businesses are already working to meet the needs of caregivers.
For about five years, Boise State University has hosted a support group for caregivers - most dealing with elder care - who work at the university.
St. Luke's Health System is midway through a three-year research program to figure out how its hospitals can help employees' work and caregiving lives fit together.
And various smaller businesses in the Treasure Valley proudly offer flexible work policies to accommodate the nonwork demands on staffers' time and energy.
Elder-care needs haven't become an issue yet for Northwest Lineman College in Meridian, but all of the flexibility offered to parents or grandparents with child-care issues is also available to workers caring for their aging parents, says Leanna Whitney, vice president for business practices.
The lineman college, which has about 70 workers in the Valley, Idaho Falls and Texas, allows people to have flexible hours and/or work from home "to the extent that is possible in their job" and stresses family-friendly policies as part of its company mindset.
"We believe we will have less turnover, be able to attract higher quality people, and people will be more productive," Whitney says. "It also builds tremendous loyalty. It's such a Golden Rule thing If you treat people the way you'd want to be treated, it comes around."
Northwest Lineman College is among 11 Treasure Valley businesses that have won Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility in the past two years.
Another local Sloan Award winner is Red Sky Public Relations. At the 14-employee communications firm, a key to flexibility can be found in technology.
Red Sky uses numerous software and online applications, from Yammer to Basecamp, and enlists Dropbox to make client and company documents available to people working remotely, co-founder and CEO Jessica Flynn says. Employees can borrow portable Wi-Fi hot spots so they can work and interact online wherever they are.
"Not that we're saying, 'You're going through a troubled time; you must work.' But if you want to stay engaged, you can, from home or from a hospital waiting room," Flynn says.
Some Red Sky employees have made use of that technology and flexibility while dealing with ailing parents, she says.
Flexibility has enhanced productivity, Flynn says: "People will be productive on their own terms if you give them a chance to do so."
Face-to-face interaction is still important, she says, and all Red Sky workers participate in Friday morning staff meetings at the Boise office.
HAVE THE CONVERSATION
A partner with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, former Idaho first lady Patricia Kempthorne champions workplace flexibility through her Boise-based Twiga Foundation.
The need to care for parents is quickly rising as a major issue, Kempthorne says. The number of elder parents is increasing faster than the number of young children, and elder care is "much more unpredictable," she says.
"You can have four to six adults in your life that need some kind of caregiving," she says. "I'd say every employer is dealing with it in some way" - whether they know it or not.
Twiga offers workshops and consulting to encourage work practices that complement and support family needs. Not all businesses like the idea, she says, but "I think they're receptive if they take the time to consider how this impacts them."
The key, Kempthorne says, is for managers and employees to share information and work together on effective strategies.
She says she'd like to see the growing need for elder care incorporated into business education curricula to help employers and employees alike "understand how to have this conversation."
Fostering that conversation is one of the focuses of a three-year study St. Luke's is working on with the Boston College Sloan Center for Aging and Work.
"We're creating more flexibility and understanding what are our options," with the aim of retaining workers by meeting their needs, says Maureen O'Keeffe, St. Luke's vice president for human resources.
St. Luke's offers training for employees to help decide "how do you make the ask?" of your boss, and for bosses in how to anticipate and deal with workers' need for leeway.
O'Keeffe says she doesn't know how many of St. Luke's nearly 11,000 workers have taken the online training or how many are dealing with caregiver responsibilities.
St. Luke's already offers job-sharing and flexible work times and locations for some positions, she says, but workers who provide medical care are limited in what flexibility they can expect.
"Health care is probably one of the most difficult fields to try to have some flexibility," she says, "but we're working on it. We're just on the cusp of this thing."
One way Boise State University aims to address caregivers' needs is a support group that sprang from a six-week caregivers' tools workshop that Friends in Action held on campus about five years ago, Boise State Benefits Administrator Mary Naccarato says.
The group meets monthly during the academic year, with members coming and going according to their needs and schedules, she says. Sometimes they bring in guest speakers, "generally about elder care," she says. "The majority of folks are in that kind of responsibility.
"Currently we have more than 52 people on our contact list," Naccarato says. No figures were available for how many Boise State employees are dealing with caregiving issues or how many of the employees who take advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act do so to care for elders.
The federal FMLA, enacted in 1993, requires companies that employ more than 50 people to allow workers to take unpaid leave or use their sick or vacation time to care for a parent with a medical crisis. It also provides for reduced work schedules or intermittent leave.
Naccarato says the campus support group for caregivers fills an important role. She participated in the Friends in Action workshop on campus while she was caring for her father and continued to participate in the caregivers group.
"It was very much helpful," she says. "No one has the exact same caregiver snapshot or challenges, but you speak the same language.
"Until you're in it (caregiving for a parent), I don't think it's understandable."
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447