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The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for caregivers looking after children and aging parents.GOC

Lori Wilson recently took a leave from work to deal with the stress of caregiving for her mother and two teenage daughters.

Her mother was diagnosed with hepatic encephalopathy caused by liver disease that, without treatment, could result in her mother either becoming aggressive or slipping into a coma. Her mother moved in with her family two years ago – just before the pandemic hit.

In addition, Ms. Wilson’s adopted teenaged daughters both struggle with mental health issues, creating a perfect storm of pressure from all sides.

“What broke me was that there were too many things happening all at once,” says Ms. Wilson, a planning manager at a Toronto hospital.

Given the rise in mental health issues among children over the course of the pandemic, alongside a rapidly aging population, caregivers in the sandwich generation have been socially isolated and facing huge pressures these last few years.

Dr. Anna Garnett is an assistant professor at the School of Nursing at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., focusing on equitable support for the health and well-being of vulnerable older adults and their families. Dr. Garnett says that women are realizing that they can’t live with the stress.

“Women are the great shoulders of everything,” says Dr. Garnett. “They take it on.”

More income insecurity

Statistics Canada reports that women were almost four times more likely to assume the role of caregiver (79 per cent versus 22 per cent of men) even before the pandemic.

In their 2022 Gender Diversity at Work report, McKinsey found that 41 per cent of women reported feeling exhausted, while another report found the rate of people quitting their jobs was 25 per cent higher than it was pre-pandemic.

After some time of doing all the unpaid caregiving during the pandemic, many women choose to forgo financial stability for their own health, says Dr. Garnett.

Barbara MacLean has been the executive director of Family Caregivers of BC for 19 years, and while over time she has witnessed a shift toward men taking on more caregiving responsibilities, it has remained primarily a gendered position occupied by women.

Women suffer more income insecurity as a result of caregiving, she says.

“They’ll reduce their hours of work and turn down promotions,” Ms. MacLean says. “Women tend to keep [their caregiving responsibilities] secret so they are not perceived as not pulling weight.”

When considering how employers will prepare for the future given what we’ve learned through the pandemic, Ms. MacLean hopes for systemic change from the government that will incentivize employers to create benefits for child and elder care.

“We have made gains in child care,” says Ms. MacLean, “but we are generally ill-equipped for elder care. Care is a continuum over the lifespan.”

Impact on mental health

Recent Census Canada data shows seniors over the age of 85 are among the fastest-growing age groups in the country. Meanwhile, according to Ontario Caregiver, 50 per cent of caregivers have seen a negative impact on their mental health.

Alexandra Drane is the co-founder and CEO of Archangels, a U.S.-based platform that supports caregivers in a number of ways, including collecting data on their well-being. She says that before the pandemic, 8 per cent of caregivers reported being “in the red,” meaning their mental and physical health was suffering. After the pandemic hit, that number tripled to 24 per cent, she says.

“There was a hope as COVID-19 moved into its next stage that intensity would come down. We are now at 29 per cent and holding steady,” says the Boston-based health equity expert.

Ms. Drane is a member of the sandwich generation herself – an unpaid caregiver who provides care for her two children and her aging father. She understands the pressures associated with the unpaid caring economy acutely.

“[Unpaid caregivers] create enormous value for the system,” she says. “With the pandemic that work has doubled and tripled in intensity. I wish [unpaid caregivers] would go on strike because they would bring the economy to its knees.”

More accommodation needed

In Toronto, Ms. Wilson says her employer has been very supportive of her leave, and she feels fortunate to be working in a caring environment.

But she loves her work and worries that she’s ruined her career by taking a leave. “Maybe now I won’t be considered for a promotion,” she says.

Dr. Garnett notes that caregivers are often a silent population, typically not drawing upon services themselves, while the needs and demands on them are huge.

For Dr. Garnett, the current care models offered from employers and the government are too circumscribed. For instance, if someone’s partner has cancer, they are typically given time off to care for them, but there is an expected end date if they are terminal.

She sees an opportunity for funding and benefits that are more accommodating and less tied to specific disease.

“What’s a burden for one caregiver is not for another,” she says. “It’s a very personal journey.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I’ve been volunteering for a prominent charitable organization for a year. It’s really rewarding work, but I feel like I need to start getting paid for it! I’m spending more and more time doing this on top of my regular job (which is in sales), and I’d like to broach becoming a paid employee with the executive director. I know I’m doing great, valuable work for them, but I also know they don’t have a lot of money to throw around. How can I convince them it’s in their best interests to hire me on?

We asked Toronto-based career strategist Jen Narayan of Career Real Talk to field this one:

Before you talk to your executive director, take some time to sit down and write out what your impact is on the organization and what your achievements have been. How are you adding value? How is this aligned with your purpose and the company’s purpose? Show how what you’re doing benefits the organization.

You initially became involved in the organization as a volunteer, so you need to show very clearly that what you do goes above and beyond what a volunteer does. How does what you do impact the bottom line?

Then, you need to think about what salary you should ask for – if this is a non-profit, it may be lower than the salary you are currently making. You need to find out what the salary band is for this role, so you can do some research on Glassdoor.com, for example. That way, you will come out of the conversation feeling like you haven’t asked for something unreasonable. You need to feel confident about what you’re asking for, and they need to know that it makes financial sense for them.

Before the meeting, you will also need to take some time to figure out what you want from the relationship with the organization. Do you want to end this volunteer participation in two or three months if you aren’t taken on in a paid capacity, or do you want to still volunteer there no matter what?

If you decide to give them an ultimatum, you may want to say something like, ‘In the next three months I’m hoping to either transition to being a full-time employee or I will unfortunately need to discontinue the volunteer relationship because it’s been impacting my professional and personal life.’ Then, share why you should be a full-time employee, how you and your achievements are benefitting the organization and everything you prepared in advance.

You may be worried about whether the conversation will be awkward or uncomfortable, but my perspective is that when you speak your truth to someone, it either ends well or it doesn’t, and that ending may tell you whether this is the right place for you.

It’s important though that you give the executive director time to respond. You should not be expecting an answer in that meeting. That’s where we go wrong sometimes – we put someone on the spot and say, ‘I want an answer now.’ But they may need a chance to figure out how they can make it work, so you need to ask the question and then give them space to answer.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.