Canadian employers do not realize how many of their workers balance their jobs with the responsibilities of caring for a loved one, but want to make things easier for employees in that situation.
Those are the findings of a report to be released on Tuesday by a panel of executives and experts the federal government formed to ask Canadian companies what they are doing to help employees who are also looking after someone who is aging or who has a long-term illness.
"This is a truck coming down the road that's only going to get bigger with the demographics of our country over the next few years," said Stephen Shea, a partner with Ernst & Young in Canada, who chaired the Employer Panel for Caregivers.
The message to Canadian corporations, Mr. Shea said, is that "if you aren't aware of this or [haven't] given it a lot of thought, do your homework, assess the need in your organization."
Alice Wong, the Minister of State for Seniors, asked the panel last June to consult with companies across Canada to identify the most promising ways employers are helping their workers balance their jobs with caring for an elderly parent, a spouse, a sibling, a disabled child or friend.
According to Statistics Canada, 35 per cent of employed Canadians provide that type of informal care, in some cases spending 30 or more hours a week at it. Their absenteeism and reduced productivity is estimated to cost the Canadian economy $1.3-billion annually. And the number of seniors requiring care is expected to double by 2031.
The panel, which surveyed a wide range of organizations, from large multinationals to small owner-managed businesses, found that employers were "generally surprised" that caregiving was so pervasive – perhaps because their workers do not routinely bring it to their attention.
While most companies agreed government regulation is not needed, they said helping their workers is "the right thing to do" and they want a better understanding of their own business-case reasons for supporting caregivers.
Mr. Shea said this kind of assistance is crucial when Canadian businesses are focused on retention and also on ensuring that their employees are engaged in what they do.
But "it's got to be flexible. Everybody has unique circumstances and you will have to consider the uniqueness of those circumstances," he said.
The report of the panel provides a wide range of ideas for helping caregivers – such as allowing employees to work at home, providing emergency elder care, job-sharing and income averaging and setting up systems of phased-in retirement.
Janet Wilson, a manager at Family Service Toronto, which provides support to seniors and caregivers, said the issue is especially prevalent in ethnic communities, where many older people do not want to go into long-term care because they do not speak the language and the institutions are not always sensitive to their traditions.
Ms. Wilson said balancing work with caregiving is difficult emotionally and and physically, and employers need to be flexible.
"Usually, from work you go home and you have an opportunity to relax," she said. But it is not the same for caregivers, she said. "You are right into another job."