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Pedestrians are seen at the intersection of King and Bay Streets in Toronto, Monday October 29/2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Pedestrians are seen at the intersection of King and Bay Streets in Toronto, Monday October 29/2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Life on overload: ‘Sandwich generation’ struggles with burnout Add to ...

More working Canadians are having to care for both their children and elderly relatives, a squeeze that is triggering higher absenteeism, stress and increasing burnout.

A new paper, out Wednesday, sheds a light on the prevalence of the so-called “sandwich generation” and the pressure cooker of juggling work and family care.

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A fifth of professionals in the country are working and taking care of both their kids as well as an older family member. And it’s not just women – men are increasingly likely to be caught in double or triple duty, and missing work or taking leaves as a result.

Caregivers are more likely to be absent from work, use company benefits and turn down promotions. They’re also more likely to experience a drop in productivity and a decline in the number of hours they can dedicate to work. And – employers take note – demographics of an aging population and delayed parenthood suggest the challenge is only going to grow.

“People say they’re short of sleep, grumpy, they take it out on customers and colleagues at work. And these are our knowledge workers...who are expected to come in and be creative,” said Linda Duxbury, professor at Carleton University who counts herself in the sandwich generation, and who co-authored the paper with University of Western Ontario’s Christopher Higgins. “This group is going to increase dramatically in size and in importance to businesses.”

The study, “Balancing work, childcare and eldercare: A view from the trenches,” was sponsored by Desjardins Financial. It focuses on highly-educated managers and professionals, particularly those at larger firms, and is based on a national survey of work-life balance of 25,021 employees. It was conducted in 2011 and 2012. Of those, almost 8,000 responded to questions about caregiving, of which researchers conducted 111 follow-up phone interviews.

More boomers and Generation Xers are likely to fall into the sandwich generation as they delay parenthood and their parents live longer. And with smaller family sizes, there are now fewer family members to share the responsibilities of caring for an older parent, aunt, neighbour or in-law.

As a result, “employees in the sandwich generation are getting worn down by the demands on their time and lack the resilience to emotionally separate the work-life domains,” the report said.

Employers keen on attracting, retaining and engaging knowledge workers may need to adjust their strategies – and understand that more men, too, are becoming caregivers. The report recommends companies introduce flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, workplace seminars and more employee assistance programs. Employers that already offer subsidies for daycare should also consider support for eldercare.

Women are still the main caregivers – they are twice as likely as male employees to be in the sandwich generation, the paper said. But men, particularly Gen-Xers, “are also experiencing serious challenges balancing work and caregiving,” and are more likely to miss work due to mental and emotional fatigue as a result.

Six in ten employed caregivers say they work more than 45 hours a week. On top of that, parents of young children spend more than 30 hours a week on childcare, while those taking care of elders spend an average of 10.7 hours.

Here, by the numbers, are some of the study’s findings:

  • 20 per cent: Proportion of employed women and 17 per cent of men in the large survey which are part of the sandwich generation of Canadians.
  • 40 per cent: Portion of workers in the overall survey who report high levels of overload – both at work and at home.
  • 25 to 30 per cent: Portion of caregivers who cope with the pressures of work and family by bringing work home, giving up on sleep and trimming social activities on a daily basis – a response which raises the chance of employee burnout (and grumpy workers).
  • 20 per cent: Portion of male and female employees who are caregivers who turn down promotions because their plate is too full.
  • 63 per cent: Portion of caregivers who report emotional consequences of juggling work and looking after family, which includes stress, anxiety and frustration.

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