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Field sales representative Sharon Ho, photographed with her two daughters, says that balancing the responsibilities of work and caregiving can be challenging.Alana Paterson

Unpaid caregiving can increase fatigue, stress and anxiety, but employers can help lighten the load by offering flexibility and resources

There’s a lot of invisible weight resting on Amy Snow’s shoulders.

Ms. Snow has been caring for her mother, who is in the late stages of dementia, for the past several years. And while her mom has been in a great long-term care facility for a few years since her daily care needs have increased, Ms. Snow says that recent months have been particularly challenging as the industry experiences unprecedented staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My family and I do our best to fill the gaps, feeding a few meals a week, changing bedding, tidying her room and being there as often as possible for socialization,” says Ms. Snow, senior manager, communications, at Novo Nordisk Canada. “I experience a degree of anxiety every day [about whether] someone is there [with her], that she’s getting the care she needs, that she’s eating enough.”

Ms. Snow gives the example of a recent workday when she received a call that her mother was lethargic and wouldn’t eat breakfast.

“That meant immediately dropping everything I was doing to call the nurse practitioner, discuss [my mom’s] symptoms and talk about a plan,” says Ms. Snow. “It requires constant monitoring and follow-up – and a lot of worry as a result.”

According to the Canadian Caregiving Centre for Excellence, one in three employed Canadians is living out a reality similar to Ms. Snow’s, trying to combine paid work with unpaid care for a child, an adult with long-term health conditions or a disability, or both.

It’s a load that can take a toll. In a 2020 Statistics Canada study, 56 per cent of unpaid caregivers reported feeling tired, and 44 per cent had felt worried or anxious over the previous year. Other research has shown that compared to people who don’t provide unpaid care, caregivers have higher rates of depression and physical illness.

On the employer side, caregiving costs organizations across Canada $1.3-billion in lost productivity, due to factors such as missed workdays and increased employee turnover.

Kathy Faria, associate director for human resources at Novo Nordisk Canada, says that employers can avoid some of these losses by providing support for employees who are caregivers. It’s a move that makes financial sense for companies because it saves on recruitment and retraining costs and fosters employee engagement. It also promotes equity in the workplace, since women typically bear a greater share of caregiving responsibilities and are more likely to leave work due to the difficulty of balancing both roles.

“If you need to spend the day with your elderly parent and you know you can do it without being penalized, you’re going to want to give right back,” notes Ms. Faria. “Not to mention that you’re more focused, because you’re not feeling stressed, thinking, ‘I just got a call [about my parent] and my boss is going to be upset.’”

A workplace where employees can be open about their caregiving responsibilities and know their coworkers have their back is key, says Ms. Snow. When she was hired after explaining her mother’s story during her job interview, she says she knew she was making the right decision to join this employer. Ms. Snow says she had spent the previous ten years working in a flexible environment built on trust and knew that if she were to make a change to somewhere new it had to be somewhere equally understanding.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to survive somewhere that wasn’t supportive, and right from the beginning, I felt that wasn’t going to be an issue at all,” she says. “Knowing I have support across the organization, and in our team, is the most meaningful thing.”

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Amy Snow, senior manager of communications for Novo Nordisk Canada, has been caring for her mother with dementia for several years. She says it’s been meaningful to work for a company that supports her.Della Rollins

A ‘sandwich’ generation feeling the squeeze

Sharon Ho, a field sales representative for Novo Nordisk Canada based in Coquitlam, B.C., knows what it’s like to be a busy caregiver.

In addition to raising two daughters, ages seven and ten, Ms. Ho and her husband are also very involved in the lives of their parents. Ms. Ho says she’s grateful her kids are growing up with both sets of grandparents as part of their everyday lives, but balancing all her responsibilities can be demanding.

“Parents are so involved in school these days, [plus] there are soccer games and dance classes. You’re getting a million emails from work and school and the extracurriculars,” says Ms. Ho.

And while her parents are still quite independent, Ms. Ho or her husband attend most of their parents’ medical appointments and follow up on any test results. They’re frequently called on to provide tech support at their homes. There’s also the worry load, she says, especially during bad winter weather.

“I’ll tell my parents, ‘Don’t drive, don’t risk slipping and falling. What do you need? I’ll pick that up on my way home for you,’” she says.

Flexible hours and the option of working remotely can be a lifesaver for caregivers, says Ms. Ho. For example, “If it’s a snow day and we have to stay home with the kids, I can do administration work from home or have a virtual meeting with customers.”

Ms. Faria notes that Novo Nordisk Canada also offers time off for compassionate care.

“If an employee needs that, they can go on a leave with pay, or an unpaid leave of absence, depending on how many months it is,” she says.

Employees who are caregivers have access to a variety of helpful resources, adds Ms. Faria, including monthly workshops organized by the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) on topics such as parenting, caring for aging parents or dealing with stress. On the mental health front, the EAP offers a 24-hour hotline and up to three therapy sessions for free (or more if necessary, depending on the issue). As well, Novo Nordisk recently added $2,000 in mental health support – above and beyond regular mental health benefits – for employees and their family members.

Another resource available to Novo Nordisk’s employees is an international community with forums for people living with chronic disease and their caregivers. This allows members to connect with others who truly understand what they’re going through and share strategies they’ve personally found helpful.

“It’s a great community to be a part of,” says Ms. Snow. “The fact that it’s baked into our culture as a workplace is pretty amazing, and it’s an important reminder of why we do what we do every day.”

Toward a culture of caring and support

Some of these policies and benefits have been put in place directly in response to employee input, Ms. Faria notes.

“Listening to our employees’ needs has allowed us to pivot as an organization,” she says.

For example, Novo Nordisk’s gender equity employee resource group (GEM) helped spearhead the expansion of mental health benefits. And when schools closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, leaving parents of school-aged children scrambling for childcare, “we added flexibility in terms of working hours,” Ms. Faria says.

Beyond these resources, Ms. Faria says that the company culture at Novo Nordisk Canada is a big part of how they ensure employees feel supported.

“I see the way that our colleagues take care of each other, and each of the teams are always leaning on each other,” Ms. Faria says.

When employees feel that sense of belonging and trust, they’re more likely to stay at an organization long-term and perform to the best of their ability, she adds.

“I’m not sure a lot of organizations understand the importance of culture and making sure that everybody has a great employee experience,” she says. “Hearing how much our employees appreciate it, I think we’ve done a great job.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Novo Nordisk. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.