Many employees are engaged in a challenging “juggling act,” with about one in four Canadians aged 15 and older providing ongoing care to a family member or friend and about one in five caregivers spending 20 or more hours a week in that role, according to Sherry Hnatyshyn, managing director of Carepath.

During a Benefits Canada webinar on Sept. 9, she shared a case study describing the advantages of a specialized elder-care program that provides virtual support for employees and in-person support for their family members. With the program’s assistance, a full-time employee was able to arrange for her 70-year-old mother with early onset dementia to move from Halifax to Toronto into an appropriate facility, without taking a leave of absence from work or travelling to Halifax.

Read: Elder care costs Canadians $27B annually in lost income, vacation

“Elder-care programs help employees [remain] engaged in work activities and decrease the number of days off,” said Hnatyshyn. “The benefits for the employers are [that this type of program] reduces absenteeism, reduces presenteeism, improves the focus at work and really shows that the employer does truly care for their employee.”

That employer support is something Brenda Agnew, director of caregiving at Chronically Simple, didn’t experience when she returned to work after her second son was born 14 years ago with significant, lifelong medical issues. “Without support and without any type of solution building or conversations with my employer, it really all did come to a head and I actually ended up on long-term disability for about seven years,” she said during the webinar, noting she’s sharing her story to show employers how things can be different.

Individual caregivers require different supports from their employers, she said, but often includes flexibility, understanding, support and affirmation. She urged employers not to assume they know what an employee needs, but instead acknowledge those employees’ dual roles and ask how they can help. These discussions can reveal gaps in the benefits and other resources offered by the employer and set the stage for collaborative work to find solutions.

Read: How to support working caregivers

While caregiving is still a challenge for Agnew, she now has a supportive workplace so it’s manageable. “I feel seen and heard and appreciated and supported, just as everyone should.”

Also during the webinar, Adriana Shnall, program director at Baycrest@Home, clinical programs and Koschitzky Centre for Innovations in Family Caregiving, emphasized the importance of language in conversations with employees. She recommended avoiding terms like “loved one” (some people give care out of duty, not love), “role reversal” (often used inaccurately to describe relationships when one person has dementia) and even “caregiver” (she prefers “carer” or “care partner” because the relationship doesn’t flow in just one direction).

She also shared key principles for supportive conversations, including active listening, asking open-ended questions, communicating assertively and being empathetic. “At the end of the day, we can have a flexible workplace, use technology, have all kinds of supports in place, but [if employees] can’t talk to us about what they’re going through and we don’t have an awareness of what the issues are, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Read: One in four Canadians taking on caregiving responsibilities: StatsCan

Leadership buy-in is also critical as teams work to implement programs that support caregivers in the workplace, noted Shnall, recommending employers highlight to decision-makers the amount of time many caregivers are spending every week on a hugely demanding role and how that can stand in the way of productivity at work.

“It’s imperative that we [address] this or we’re going to get into a crisis situation,” she said. “It’s not a choice anymore and it’s important that companies and organizations are really on top of this.”