What Your Employees Need: Supporting Caregivers in 2021

The pandemic has required many employees to juggle online meetings with their roles as caregivers. Are businesses providing the support caregivers need? A recent global report reveals how employee expectations have evolved.

When COVID-19 lockdowns shuttered childcare facilities, workplaces, and schools, it also disrupted the carefully balanced lives of caregivers and their support systems. For some office-based employees, the pandemic meant juggling online work meetings with children’s online school classes and then running across town to care for parents or other family members and friends in need.

The pandemic excelled at ratcheting up existing tensions. Many employees mixed personal and professional boundaries like never before. Taken to the brink of burnout, some people needed better or different support from their organizations. But, did caregivers get what they needed?

That’s one of the key questions answered in the "Employee Expectations Report 2021" by Workday. To gather the insights found in the report, Workday analyzed more than 30 million employee comments across 160 countries. The result is a unique understanding of the employee voice and how employee expectations have evolved over time. 

Caring for Caregivers—With Flexible Working Arrangements

Flexible working is one of the key themes amplified by the pandemic. According to the report, the proportion of employee comments concerning flexible working in 2020 increased 125% year-over-year. 

These comments touched on many issues, but the one thing that stood out for both women and men was the increase in caring responsibilities. The emergence of the pandemic and many countrywide lockdowns caused a significant jump in conversations about childcare, parenting, or supporting other members of the family. 

Caregiving depends on an essential but invisible army. For many, caregiving is rewarding and imbued with familial love—but it’s a role that’s typically unpaid and on top of all the other demands of people’s lives. In short, caregivers are unsung heroes who clearly deserve every song.

Workplaces need to consider the extra responsibility and pressure placed on their employees by caregiving. The demand for flexible working did not start with, and will not end with the pandemic. Pre-COVID approaches to flexible working may no longer be sufficient. 

Flexible working is about more than allowing your people to work from home—it’s about fostering an environment where autonomy and mutual trust can thrive.

The Flexible Working Trend—Nothing New

While some companies may view the pressures of the past year as an anomaly, the flexible working trend was already gaining traction among HR professionals as an incentive to attract and retain employees who value autonomy and more freedom to set their working hours. 

Even in 2019, employee comments in Workday Peakon Employee Voice featuring flexible working-related terms increased by 18%, with terms such as “WFH” and “flexible work hours” rising in prevalence. Younger generations led the way—with increases in flexible working comments two to three times greater than other generations.

Why does this matter? According to the AARP, 48% of caregivers are 18-49 years old. This illustrates that the demands of caregiving impact every generation, and flexible working will be an expectation more and more as Gen Z and Millennials make up a higher share of the workforce. 

 “People have seen the benefits of working from home. We’ve been able to spend less time commuting, more time on our work, and more autonomy over our working hours.” 

Rick Kershaw Senior HR Director Workday

Reaching a Breaking Point?

In Workday's Workload survey question—one of many that helps companies measure employee engagement—we ask: “The demands of my workload are manageable.” Respondents then give a score between 0 and 10. The goal is to examine whether employees feel the amount of work they’re responsible for is reasonable. 

The "Employee Expectations Report 2021" found that while the increased autonomy of working from home has improved overall workload scores year-over-year, women especially have felt the additional pressure of caregiving responsibilities. 

Most often, although certainly not always, it is women who spend more time caring for children, elderly, sick, or disabled family and friends. Around the world, women can spend up to 10 times more hours on unpaid care work than men. And, upwards of 75% of all caregivers are female, according to the Institute on Aging.

The result, according to the report, are Workload scores that have gradually fallen throughout the year among employees who mentioned caring responsibilities. Women felt the impact more acutely than men (see Workload graph) and the gap between the two genders has widened. The bottom line is that women are now less likely to feel their workload is manageable. 

The fallout has been hard. In a survey commissioned by Workday at the end of last year, 34% of women said they felt “on the brink of burn out.” And, without the proper support, women caregivers are often left to fend for themselves.

How Can Employers Support Caregivers? Start With Flexible Working 

Employers can tackle this challenge head on with empathy and by implementing policies friendly to caregivers. That means flexible hours outside a typical working day, compressed work weeks, and shorter days for people who have multiple family members to support. Policies like these have been shown to reduce burnout and improve productivity.

The key for managers and their employers is to focus on outcomes, not hours. Longer hours don’t necessarily make people more productive. Companies need to double down on effective ways to measure how individual employees contribute to company goals, and to train and assess managers on their ability to carry out policies and determine the success of their teams.

Employers should also take an inclusive approach to flexible working that values and works for all employees. While flexing on where work gets done (e.g., remote working) may not work for all jobs and industries, all jobs can flex in some way—such as when they work, what they do, how the work is done, or who does the work. 

The key for managers and their employers is to focus on outcomes, not hours. Longer hours don’t necessarily make people more productive.

Finally, organizations need to elevate the employee voice, so it becomes part of their strategic decision making. That means continuously listening to all employees to understand what they really want and need—not just once a year or quarter. Then, they can take decisive action and respond to employees’ evolving needs. This will drive the ongoing positive change that contributes to future business success. 

Flexible working is about more than allowing your people to work from home—it’s about fostering an environment where autonomy and mutual trust can thrive. Now, more than ever, businesses need to pay greater attention to the needs of caregivers, listen to their feedback, and be proactive in finding viable solutions. 

“The rise of the hybrid working model is down to the fact that in the post-pandemic world, many people want to be back in the office, but not all the time,” said Rick Kershaw, senior HR director, Workday, in an article last year about hybrid working. “As we’ve seen in lockdown, people have seen the benefits of working from home. We’ve been able to spend less time commuting, more time focusing on our work, and we’ve had more autonomy over our working hours.”

After all, what we want is the flexibility to be closer to what’s best for our lives overall, and our working lives are only one part of that. That may mean finding the right work-life balance that best supports our families and friends in need.

The future of work is about supporting your people wherever they are—in the office, at home, and beyond—and making work really work for them.

To learn more, read the "Employee Expectations Report 2021."

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