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A recent report by Ceridian Canada says 17 per cent of Canada’s work force have heavy caregiving responsibilities outside of work.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Stephen Shea, a Toronto-based managing partner at Ernst & Young LLP, knows as well as anyone the enormous relief of being free to leave work, on occasion, to care for a seriously ill family member.

After his mother suffered a debilitating stroke four years ago, Mr. Shea was able to be there when she needed him most. During periods when his mother's condition was relatively stable, he stopped by to see her every night on the way home from work. But when something required urgent attention, he could attend to it quickly – "with the total support of the firm."

As managing partner of talent for Ernst & Young in Canada, and a global partner in the resource sector, Mr. Shea was accustomed to working long hours in any event. Starting early and working late gave him the flexibility to step out at midday, as necessary.

"You do what you have to do," Mr. Shea said in an interview. There's no question that juggling work and caregiving responsibilities for a prolonged period "just grinds you over time." Still, Mr. Shea, whose mother died two years ago, remains profoundly grateful for the support of his chief executive officer and colleagues.

The conflict between work and caregiving is an issue more Canadian employers are grappling to address because longer life spans have made elder care a pressing issue for many employees, said Mr. Shea, who served as chairman of an employer panel appointed by the federal government in 2014 to look at ways in which organizations can help.

"Only a few years ago, it may have been considered career-limiting for a parent to leave at a set time to collect a child from daycare. Today, most organizations accept and support this situation without question," the panel said in its report, When Work and Caregiving Collide: How Employers Can Support Their Employees Who Are Caregivers.

However, when it comes to looking after ill or disabled relatives, many employees fear their careers will suffer if they request time off or flexible work arrangements.

This is not necessarily the case, Mr. Shea said, but employers are hard-pressed to help if they are unaware of the need for accommodation. Indeed, his panel's report said, the majority of these caregivers "are 45 or older, often talented and experienced employees possessing deep company or industry knowledge … people we don't want to see exit the work force."

There are varying estimates of how many working Canadians are caught in this dilemma. Human resources firm Ceridian Canada Ltd. reports that 2.8 million working Canadians, or 17 per cent of the work force, have heavy caregiving responsibilities outside of work. "Even more alarming is that the average caregiver dedicates 23.8 hours per week to caregiving activities," Ceridian wrote in a recent report, Double Duty: The Caregiving Crisis in the Workplace.

Estelle Morrison, vice-president of clinical and wellness services at Ceridian Canada, said employers have traditionally accommodated employees on an ad hoc basis. Some organizations are now looking at more formal policies that are flexible enough to accommodate their employees' unique needs on a case-by-case basis, while ensuring that the work still gets done.

"The challenge for employers is to create a flexible work system that is trackable, accountable, and fair for all – without ruffling any feathers or risking undue losses," the Ceridian report said.

Ms. Morrison said employees who do not have caregiving responsibilities are more likely to support alternative work arrangements for their colleagues when they know similar accommodations will be offered to them when, and if, they ever need them.

"It sends the right message [when the employer says] we expect this certain amount of work to be done, but the way in which it gets done is something we may be able to accommodate," she said.

Sometimes, the remedy is as simple as a shift change that allows employees to schedule daytime appointments for the person they are caring for. Or it might involve days off here and there.

"It's one thing to say 'we'll give you leave,' but a lot of people can't afford it, so an extended vacation program where people can take reduced pay and more time off, may work at various points of the year," Mr. Shea said.

"You have to come up with different ways to be flexible. … It [the time spent on the job] is not always equal week to week, day to day. It's the flexibility to allow people to work when they have to work and deal with family issues when they have family issues," he said.

Linda Speedy, chief human resources officer at KPMG LLP in Canada, says the range of accommodations offered by her firm includes paid personal days and the option to telecommute.

"When longer absences are required, a temporary reduced work schedule can be arranged to allow more capacity for personal needs while maintaining a client-service role," Ms. Speedy said. "If employees need to be away from work completely for a period of time to support family and friends, an unpaid leave with continued benefits can be arranged."

In the end, she said, having a corporate culture that makes it possible for people to discuss their needs and get support is "far more important" than the programs themselves.

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