Does your typical day include leaving work early to pick up blood-pressure medicine for Dad before racing to day care to beat the $150 late fee, then heading home to worry about missed work time?
Welcome to the sandwich generation.
Millions of middle-aged and older workers feel squeezed by the needs of dependent children and aging parents. Nine percent to 13 percent of US households with two or more people age 30 to 60 have two earners and care for both elders and children, according to research by Margaret Neal and Leslie Hammer, both professors at Portland State University in Oregon.
And the sandwich generation is growing. "More and more working people are finding themselves squeezed between child care and caring for a parent," says Kathie Lingle, director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress.
But there's hope: Employers, acting in enlightened self-interest, have begun to recognize and respond to challenges sandwiched employees face. They are rolling out policies and reconfiguring benefits to boost retention, maintain productivity and focus and earn loyalty from seasoned professionals at the peak of their careers.
Workers and Employers Hurt by Generational Squeeze
It's about time companies confront demographic reality. In 2005, 71 percent of Baby Boomers, then aged 41 to 59, had at least one living parent, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. In 1989, only 60 percent of those in this demographic had a living parent.
These squeezed workers feel vulnerable. "Sandwich-generation workers are terrified of losing their jobs, so they keep their situation under the radar," Lingle says.
Savvy employers understand that even when sandwiched workers try to mitigate caregiving's effects on their work, the company pays a price. "It costs employers $3,500 per year for each worker who is a primary elder care provider," Lingle explains. The chief cost is usually lost productivity.
Truly Flexible Flextime Can Help Relieve Stress
"Caregivers say the number one thing they want is flexible hours, because you can't predict when you're going to have to take time off," says Gail Hunt, president of the National Alliance for Caregiving.
One flextime option offered by Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago is a compressed workweek, which can be liberating for caregivers. Employees can choose to work three 12-hour shifts, take four days off and still receive full-time benefits. "This helps our employees be available to care for children or take a parent to a doctor's appointment," says Barbara Bowman, chief human resources officer.
However, many employers' workplace practices fail to keep to the spirit of their official policies. According to Hunt, "The biggest issue is that companies may appear to be caregiver-friendly, but employees in surveys say, ‘my supervisor is not very sympathetic.'" Training is needed to educate line supervisors on the lost productivity and increased turnover that can result.
Other Benefits Help Sandwiched Workers
Flextime isn't the only benefit that can help workers juggle jobs, children and elders.
"Backup family care is aimed at people with young children and elderly relatives," Bowman says. Children's Memorial pays for up to 80 hours per year of in-home care for the employee's family. Employees typically use the benefit when regular care arrangements fall through or for infrequent needs, such as postsurgical care for a relative.
Employers can also offer their workers flexible spending accounts for dependent care. These accounts, funded by payroll deductions, come at a nominal administrative cost to employers and enable workers to reap tax savings by writing off care expenses for both children and elderly relatives.