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Business Insight: Caregiver employees bring unique value to companies

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review. It was co-written by Lisa Kaplowitz, a professor of professional practice and executive director of the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers Business School and Kate Mangino, an author and gender expert. 

“James” is an Asian American finance executive. He’s also a caregiver. Caregiving isn’t new to James; he has been helping his first-generation parents as their personal translator and navigator of American systems since high school. He’s also the father of three children under the age of 11. Taking care of others is an integral part of his life.

When we asked James if his caregiving roles have helped him perform professionally, he didn’t hesitate:

"One hundred percent. What I have learned is highly transferable to the workforce. I am a relationship manager for external clients…And the better we can understand them, the better we perform…At the end of the day, asset management is asset management. But those relationships that we build? Those are what sets us apart. That’s what makes me so good at my job."

There is no lack of data and information about why organizations should offer caregiver-friendly employee policies and benefits. We’re aware of the “mommy penalty” women face when they take time away from work to care for family members. We know that the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to support caregivers, and in fact is the only industrial nation without federal paid parental leave. Many people live in childcare deserts.

Given these shortcomings and the fact that 73% of U.S. employees are caregivers, in order to have a productive and sustainable workforce, companies must create the infrastructure to support them. The hidden cost to companies for not supporting caregivers can also be high when factoring in turnover, lost institutional knowledge, and absenteeism.

However, the conversation about supporting caregivers at work has typically focused on employee well-being, not the benefits to employers. We conducted original research to collect stories from employees like James and found that they bring unique skillsets that positively impact culture, retention, and ultimately the bottom line.

We received 131 valid responses comprising 93 stories about child care, 38 about elder care, 18 about caring for someone with a disability, and six about caring for someone with a long-term illness. (Note that some respondents told more than one story.) All survey respondents participated in the paid economy and also provided unpaid, long-term care for more than six consecutive months. We coded these stories and aggregated the data into 18 categories. We then identified  three broader groups based on how respondents demonstrate improved management skills in the workplace: humanity, productivity, and “cognitivity” — a term we propose to describe the wide range of mental and emotional work necessary for the organization to maintain culture, connect people, and ensure smooth operations.

Improved empathy, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and teamwork simply make one a better coworker, a kinder manager, and a more understanding leader. This results in increased retention, engagement, and innovation. Humanity is what leads someone to volunteer to step up when someone needs to rush out to pick up a sick child from school or take time to drive a parent to a doctor’s appointment. These are the people who listen without judgment and encourage their colleagues. Here’s how two respondents described the caregiving skills they bring to work:

"Taking care of my three school-aged children…helped me be more empathetic with coworkers’ personal needs, [leading to] lower levels of stress and higher levels of trust within my teams."
- Consulting executive who identifies as male, white; caregiver for own children

"[My company benefits] by having more engaged employees…[their] needs are heard and understood, resulting in higher retention."
- Research and development manager who identifies as female, white; caregiver for chronically ill parent

"Humanity is what leads someone to volunteer to step up when someone needs to rush out to pick up a sick child from school or take time to drive a parent to a doctor’s appointment. These are the people who listen without judgment and encourage their colleagues."

"[Being a caregiver] made me a better manager and worker. I am able to multi-task, switch gears, and not get bogged down worrying about things I can’t control. I know how to switch focus to what each employee, team, superior, and client needs at that moment. I know how to make time for myself to attend to my emotional needs by connecting with peers, reflecting, and seeking support and self-care. I have been able to lead larger, complex projects and time-sensitive proposals and ensure employees’ needs are met to improve morale, retention, and productivity."
- Research manager who identifies as female, first-generation Asian American; parent and caregiver for a disabled person

"We may miss some days or hours from work, but overall those hours are made up 100x by the intense hard work and dedication put in after hours."
- Medical/pharma/biotech employee who identifies as female, white; caregiver for own children, parents, and a chronically ill person

We’re calling this third set of caregiving skills “cognitivity,” building on the concept of cognitive labor, the term often used to describe the invisible work critical to running a household (sometimes referred to as the mental load or emotional burden). But the home isn’t the only place that requires cognitive labor; this is also a key component of smooth workplace operations. Anticipating needs, spotting small problems before they turn into big ones, putting measures in place to avoid issues down the road, and always staying a step ahead are all examples of cognitivity. People with high cognitivity manage disruptions and take initiative to complete tasks with little or no direction.

Another way to think about cognitivity is “gluework.” Coined by engineer Tanya Reilly, gluework is the in-between stuff that holds people and processes together, which is the foundation of a company’s culture. In a workplace, this can mean making sure there’s a backup plan if the technology doesn’t sync for the big pitch, considering dietary restrictions for the lunch order, taking the meeting notes, and even running the ERGs. These are often non-promotable tasks — invisible but critical, and often done by women. Caregivers are required to maintain a high level of cognitivity since they act as the control tower for a range of experts, doctors, schools, schedules, family members, etc. As one participant told us:

"My company benefits because I take care of a lot of problems before they blow up into larger problems; I have diverse skills they get in one employee vs. having to pay multiple employees."
- Nonprofit leader who identifies as female, Black or African American; caregiver for own children.

The workplace has become more complex over the last several years. Leaders are now required to manage five generations of workers who likely aren’t in the same physical space every day. The pandemic, natural disasters, political instability, and economic uncertainty have all brought an unprecedented level of business interruption. The pace of technological change is growing exponentially. The leadership skills necessary to manage through these new paradigms have expanded.

Many of the skills we’ve grouped into the humanity, productivity, and cognitivity categories have historically been categorized as “soft” skills and coded as feminine, which may be why they’ve traditionally been less valued relative to “hard” or “technical” skills. The irony is that soft skills are core management skills and harder to develop (think communication, leadership, decision-making, problem-solving, time management, delegation, EQ, adaptability, conflict resolution, and strategic thinking).

Additionally, with the advancement of AI, automation, and machine learning, many technical tasks could be replaced by machines; what we’ll need are leaders who are communicative, empathetic, and supportive. These management skills are not often developed through on-the-job training, corporate coaching, and skills workshops — they’re developed largely in our personal relationships, and further honed through our experience as caregivers.

People of all genders are equally capable of mastering these skills, and companies would benefit greatly if all employees, regardless of gender identity, had heightened skills around humanity, productivity, and cognitivity.

Specifically, if more men invested time in caregiving, we could mitigate the gender imbalance we currently have in our homes and our offices. It would mean more men would take time off work for caregiving, seek flexible schedules, and demand remote and hybrid work environments. Perhaps if companies recognized the benefits of hiring and retaining caregivers, men would be more likely to take advantage of the available policies because it would be culturally acceptable to do so. Then people of all genders could continue to work toward professional goals without sacrificing their caregiving responsibilities.

Which brings us back to James. Until recently, James couldn’t imagine that he would be able to balance caregiving and work in the finance sector. He explained:

"In the finance world, flexibility was just not an option. If you wanted to work in this industry, you had to give up flexibility. But now having an employer who understands the need to do caregiving work has opened my mind to what is possible. And it is an amazing experience. For [my parents, my kids] and also for me. And now, I’m a role model for my colleagues. People see me as someone who has learned to effectively balance work and home."

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