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Working & Caregiving: Reducing Your Stress Without Sacrificing Career

If you are juggling a career and caregiving, you are far from alone.  According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, approximately 17% of working adults are also caregiving for someone they love at home (an elderly parent, spouse with a disability or a special needs child). Because of the competing responsibilities and overwhelming stress, many working caregivers at least consider quitting their jobs in order to focus more fully on caregiving. Here are some examples of the thoughts circling through their minds:

 “I’m just breaking even if I move my dad into assisted living and keep working. It’s like I’ll be working just to pay the assisted living bill! I should just quit work and have him move in with me.”

“With all that I have going on with the kids and my in-laws who have been in and out of the hospital a lot lately, not to mention the dog, I may as well just stop working and focus on all of that.”

“I don’t really like my job anyway, and if I quit I can focus on being there for my mother. She is having some health problems, and it’s likely to get worse because she is in her late eighties.”

Work equals stress. Caregiving equals stress. Wouldn’t eliminating of one of those stressors be the solution to cutting your stress in half? Maybe—but often leaving the workplace can create new sources of stress. In order to make the best decision for you and your family, here are ten questions to consider before opting out of the workforce:

1. Even though working while caregiving has been stressful, have there been times when work has been a welcome distraction from your caregiving worries?

Even though business trips can be exhausting, have they given you a much-needed break from tending to your loved one?  When you are really focused on a project at work, does it take your mind off all the doctor’s appointments you’ve been shuttling your loved one to?

2. Are there reasons besides caregiving that make you want to leave your job?

Is it just caregiving prompting you to consider resigning?  Or is it that new boss you just can’t stand?  Could simply changing jobs be a better option?  

Many working caregivers find that changing positions within their company, finding a new job entirely, or figuring out a way to work for a more accommodating manager can make a huge difference in their quality of life. Sometimes remaining in the workforce while working part-time is the best option of all.

3. Have I Taken FMLA Time as a Test-Run? Take a minute to think about two big decisions that people commonly make in their lives: purchasing a car and buying a home. Before buying a car, you would take it for a test-drive, wouldn’t you? You’d want to get a feel for how the car moves and whether you are comfortable driving it. If you were going to buy a house, you’d insist on a home inspection before signing the legally binding paperwork at closing. The home inspection helps you identify potential issues with the home that you may not be able to see just by being shown through the rooms. It’s the same thing when you’re considering becoming a full-time caregiver. 

Choosing to be a full-time caregiver is a big decision, yet there are ways to help ease you into that transition and to help you understand what you are about to undertake. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), private for-profit and nonprofit organizations with fifty or more employees, as well as all government agencies, are required to offer twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member. Before you even consider quitting your job or taking early retirement, it is crucial to ask your employer about this option and discuss what’s involved in at least trying it out. 

Exercising FMLA gives you the freedom to test how you would manage as a full-time caregiver while maintaining a safety net so that your job will still be there if you want it. You might take three weeks of FMLA and say, “No way! I am not cut out for taking care of my mother full-time.” But others may think, “Wow, life sure is easier when I don’t have to juggle so much.” While most caregivers’ reactions to taking FMLA aren’t quite so polarized, you will at least get a taste of what life might be like if you opted to be a caregiver full-time.

4. Besides the paycheck and benefits, what am I giving up when I leave my job?

Many caregivers who have left the workplace obviously miss using their education and job skills and the feeling of accomplishment that a job well done offers.  But many miss the social component of the workplace, even a virtual one.  Do you have friends you enjoy interacting with at work?  Are you in a fantasy football league at the office?  Do you walk with your colleagues during lunch?  Would you miss this daily comradery?

5. How difficult would it be to re-enter the workplace if full-time caregiving doesn’t suit me? 

Especially if you are at the executive level, highly paid, or are in a technology field, it could be very challenging to find a new job at the same level.

6. What are the potential long-term repercussions of leaving the workplace?

For example, perhaps working several more years would give you an opportunity to contribute more to your 401K.  If you retire prematurely might it be difficult for you to pay for your own care needs if you live until your nineties?  Would that put undue pressure on your own adult kids someday?

7. What message is your leaving the workplace sending to others with whom you share caregiving duties?

For example, if you are caring for your elderly mother, will your siblings assume you can handle everything now since you are “not working?”  In many families, those retired or not working are often automatically expected to take on more than everyone else because of their freer schedules.

8. What are the alternatives to leaving paid work altogether?

Maybe you can get paid by your loved one to take care of him or her (seeing an elder law attorney is a great way to figure out how to legally do this).  Perhaps while being paid by your loved one to provide care, you could do some consulting work or start your own business in your chosen career field.

9. Am I really best serving my loved one by staying home with him or her full-time? 

Many caregivers, unless they are trained healthcare providers, often realize they don’t have the skills or education necessary to best provide care for a sick, injured or disabled loved one. You may have been comfortable giving medication or handling routine tasks around the house, but what if your older loved one needs physical therapy after a fall?  Perhaps your older loved one’s physical condition may have deteriorated to a point where she needs professional care from a nurse at a nursing home. While many caregivers balk at utilizing the services of nursing homes, assisted livings, home care agencies, etc., these professionals are not only more experienced with health issues, they possess more objectivity.  For example, if your disabled husband says he wants to stay in bed all day, an activities director at an assisted living may have experience encouraging reluctant patients like him to exercise. 

10. Will you regret leaving your workplace if your loved one dies in the near future?

Sometimes working caregivers are in denial about how ill their loved ones are.  For example, someone with Alzheimer’s disease will die from that illness—a fact many caregivers don’t realize at first.  But even if your loved one is not currently considered terminally ill, it is important to consider this.  Would not having a routine to return to after the funeral services make grieving harder? 

If you’ve considered these questions and would like to remain with your current employer, here are some tips for reducing stress in handling both competing priorities:

  1. Acknowledge that it is normal to question whether or not you “should” be working as a caregiver, especially if you are a woman.  For most of history, females stayed home with the kids and then took care of the sick and older loved ones in the family.  But even if you aren’t a woman, most working caregivers tend to second-guess whether or not they should retire early, go part-time or even leave the workforce completely.  While it’s normal to have such thoughts, know that you can continue as a working caregiver if you surround yourself with enough support.
  2. Form a caregiving crew.  Remind yourself that caregiving for your loved one is not your job alone.  At work, we recognize that we need support to do a great job and not be spread too thin.  We rely on our manager, colleagues as well as vendors and contractors to support us when handling challenging projects.  We must adopt this same mindset when caring for a loved one. Best practices in caregiving means there is a primary caregiver, at least one or two secondary caregivers and many tertiary caregivers.  A primary caregiver often provides hands-on care for a loved one but also coordinates logistics. A secondary caregiver is someone either providing support to the primary caregiver or does something specific on behalf of the loved one who needs care.  Tertiary caregivers just offer support to the primary caregiver. If you are the primary caregiver for your husband who is recovering from an injury, perhaps your sister can serve as the secondary caregiver.  Maybe she can pick up his prescriptions when you have to take your kids to soccer practice. Maybe your neighbors would be willing to serve as tertiary caregivers by doing your grocery shopping while they do their own. Don’t forget that friends and neighbors of the loved one you are caring for can provide tertiary caregiver support too.  If you have to travel to visit your older mother when she is in the hospital, perhaps your mother’s friends in her city can pick you up at the airport.  
  3. Communicate regularly with your employer While you don’t need to share every painstaking detail with your boss, it is important that he or she knows you are a caregiver and understands a little bit about what that involves for you. Often, working caregivers are reluctant to share this detail, much the way some working parents are reluctant to discuss childcare issues because they don’t want their boss to doubt their commitment to the job. In reality, however, some employers are willing to make special arrangements to retain you based on your individual needs—especially if you are a top performer at your job. But, at the very least, your boss should recommend that you contact human resources and look into FMLA.
  4. Check with Human Resources Personnel You often hear that the only stupid question is the one not asked. Are you familiar with all the benefits your company offers? In addition to FMLA, some companies offer leave for employees to deal with caregiving issues or have backup care available when needed. Many organizations have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) you can be referred to through human resources as well. EAP was designed to help employees struggling with substance abuse, mental health issues, or other personal problems. Caregiving is typically an area that EAP specialists are knowledgeable about. Speak with your manager or someone in the human resources department to see if there are programs available to help you. Some employers allow their staff to use paid sick and vacation leave to deal with caregiving situations. Some companies even allow their staff to purchase additional vacation days, and other companies allow coworkers to donate their unused vacation time to another employee. 
  5. Minimize everything else. If you continue to work while caregiving, let go of everything else you can that doesn’t absolutely have to be done or doesn’t bring you utter joy. For instance, stop volunteering for every committee at your child’s school. Decline social functions that you don’t have a burning desire to attend. Set clear boundaries with colleagues regarding your ability to take on extra projects and work additional hours.
  6. Figure out a Plan B for both caregiving and work.  If Mom needs to go to the doctor and you can’t miss that business trip, who will step in?  Who are your back up people?  These back up persons could be a combination of family, friends and paid helpers in your caregiving crew.

Since an emergency with your loved one could occur at anytime, always have instructions ready for your colleagues in case you need to be out of the office for several days unexpectedly. 


Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP

(Certified Speaking Professional)

is a speaker, consultant, author and founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc. One of less than 800 Certified Speaking Professionals worldwide, Jennifer is the author of Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare and Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One. She was a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University's Certificate on Aging program for over a decade and has been featured on ABC, CBS, Sirius XM and in Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, Fast Company and countless other media outlets. Her board appointments include serving as a Care Advisory Board Member for Seth Rogen & Lauren Miller Rogen's non-profit HFC (Hilarity for Charity).

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