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Stigma and Working Caregivers: Why Are We Afraid to Talk About Caregiving at Work?

By Lisa Weitzman | 01/18/2022

A stressed working caregiver

Caring for an older loved one or friend touches many of us. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, one in six employed Americans report assisting with the care of an older loved one. Moreover, an estimated 10 million millennials are now a part of the caregiver population. So why are we still afraid to talk about caregiving while at work? The answer is stigma.

What is stigma?

  • Psychologists define stigma as the discomfort experienced when we act in ways viewed as unusual. 
  • Stigma causes us to feel less than “normal,” and can negatively impact our self-esteem, which may isolate us socially and/or professionally. 
  • Stigma interferes with our ability to advocate for ourselves – and thus it can become a workplace issue.

The stigma around caregiving

Caring for an older loved one while working can be stressful and make it difficult to achieve that seemingly impossible work-life balance. And yet, in conversations in the break room, hallways or elevators, how many people are really talking about this reality? Simply put, while we may happily talk about caregiving for our children, it may be more challenging to talk with colleagues about our caregiving responsibilities for an older loved one. 

We know that the demands of caregiving can require flexibility, particularly from supervisors. And it is this need for understanding – and for room to respond to caregiving responsibilities – that can create fears about our job security. We may fear being passed over for a promotion, demoted, harassed or even fired – despite good performance – based simply on assumptions of how we may act given our family responsibilities. And the impact is real: some women who are also caregivers choose to leave their jobs because they feel that they cannot live up to workplace expectations of constant availability and rigid schedules. Concurrently, some men who care for their older loved ones believe they may be perceived as weak, lazy or less capable employees (Anna Miller, Stigma Hinders Workplace Flexibility, Reports Special Issue, American Psychological Association, 44 (2013).

How can we overcome the stigma?

Through commitment and advocacy, we can reduce the impact of stigma surrounding caregiving for older people. Together, we can work to create compassionate workplaces to support working caregivers. To do this, we can: 

  1. Engage in dialogue about the sometimes complex and individualized experiences of working caregivers.
  2. Help supervisors understand and respond to unexpected caregiving responsibilities that arise during working hours. 
  3. Advocate for workplace discussion around support for working caregivers. 

Ultimately, creating a community which respects and supports each individual’s unique caregiving experience will not only help to break down the stigma, but it will also go far in the effort to support working caregivers, reduce the negative work-related effects of caregiving and improve overall well-being.

Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s evidence-based program WeCare…Because You Do provides support and assistance with care coordination to working caregivers, helping them navigate resources and plan for the future. This program can also be offered by employers as an employee benefit to support working caregivers. For employers looking for more information about providing the program, please visit the WeCare page for employee assistance providers.

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