Panel discussion: Supporting caregivers with better policies and empathy

Experts from the National Partnership for Women and Families, Docusign, Springbank Collective, and Culture Amp candidly share how businesses can better care for caregivers.

Megan Lierley
Megan Lierley
Panel discussion: Supporting caregivers with better policies and empathy

At Cocoon, it’s no surprise that we think—and talk—a lot about caregivers. Lucky for us, our community cares just as deeply as we do. Recently, our co-founder and COO, Lauren Dai, hosted a roundtable discussion on how business leaders (and the government) can better support caregivers. The conversation included incredible leaders paving the way for holistic caregiver support: Jocelyn Frye, President of National Partnership for Women & Families; Ellen Meza, Senior Director of Global Benefits at DocuSign; Ken Matos, Director of People Science at Culture Amp; and Courtney Leimkuhler, Founding Partner at Springbank.

As a community, caregivers are often overlooked, despite the fact that an estimated 18 to 22 percent of U.S. workers provide care for an elderly, sick, or disabled family member, and a 2019 report states that almost three-quarters of employees said they had some type of current caregiving responsibility. 

The overwhelming sentiment throughout the discussion was that as business leaders and as a country, we do not have the infrastructure in place to adequately support caregivers. The group candidly shared their insights into how People leaders can best support caregivers, why they should prioritize attracting and retaining these workers, and how to improve their caregiver leave policies. 

Watch the full discussion

Hear directly from the experts as they talk about supporting caregivers.

Caregiving is both deeply personal and critical to the future of work

Courtney first noticed a disparity between her organization’s gender equality goals and the reality of their current infrastructure when trying to plan events around getting more women to the C-suite. “Some of our best ideas were, let’s have a cocktail party or a mentoring event!” She said, “As a parent of young kids at the time, that was the last thing I wanted to do. I need someone to ship breast milk when I’m traveling, I need to expense the cost of my babysitter when I stay late for board dinners, I need paid time off and I need my husband to have paid time off. I realized the infrastructure was lacking and women often have to lay down and be the bridge because it doesn’t exist.” 

To invest in this infrastructure, she reasons, would actually help close the gender gap: we need to build solutions that don’t rely on women to work more or negotiate harder. “If your mom is diagnosed with dementia,” she said, “two weeks of PTO is not the answer. We need services and corporate employee benefits that will help her in the next phase of life so you as the caregiver do not need to leave the workforce to do it yourself.” 

"The infrastructure was lacking and women often have to lay down and be the bridge because it doesn’t exist.”
- Courtney Leimkuhler, Springbank

Jocelyn used her personal experience to demonstrate the unique needs individual caregivers have based on all different factors and circumstances. Both of her parents died of cancer, and while caring for them she noted that “[leaders at her company] didn’t talk a lot about personal issues. I needed to be able to take time off without opening up to justify it. It’s important for employers to really think about how this works on the ground—people shouldn’t have to bare their souls in order to care the way that they need to.”

Gender inequality in caregiving means everyone loses

Unsurprisingly, the conversation at points shifted to the fact that historically, women—and especially women of color—have taken on the burden of caregiving in the U.S. Ellen suggested that women need to ask men to push their employers on things like caregiving leave. She said, “If we aren’t talking about [the gender disparity in caregiving] in the places we can make change, it won’t move. There’s a community piece I’m really focused on.”

Ken discussed how in reality, outsourcing care to women harms both sexes. In not taking on these roles, “men suffer from broken relationships and disruptions to their families that can cause health ramifications for them.” In “setting up men to be focused on money,” our societal roles do a disservice to everyone. He shared, “I had a friend who was a stay-at-home dad. When I mentioned this to my father, his response was that it was too bad he can’t take care of his wife. It was so clear that even though he was doing the work, he was failing at an identity other people valued. This is just one of the many complex reasons why men are not more involved.”

This emphasis on men making money is a huge contributor to inequality in the workplace and the wage gap. Jocelyn said, “We know women’s earnings always trail men’s and that’s connected to the fact that they’re doing care. The wage gap is really due to the fact that women spend more hours doing caregiving in comparison to their male counterparts.”

The cost of caregiving—or the ROI in valuing it

Everyone had thoughts when Courtney said, “American families can’t pay more [for care] and workers in child/elder care can’t get paid less. We need to figure out where the money is coming from and companies need to see that as a real cost.”

The conversation turned to “flipping the script” and discussing cost from the perspective of the economies of scale companies can achieve when they place true value on caregiving and caregiver leave. 

Jocelyn said, “Think of the costs to families in terms of lost wages when you don’t have paid caregiver or family leave and access to high-quality childcare. What are the billions of dollars in lost wages, for women in particular? What would it mean in terms of GDP if more women were participating in the workplace?”

"This isn’t just a line item, it’s a benefit that will produce value—in dollars—for the company.” 
-Ellen Meza, Docusign

Ellen corroborated this way of thinking, stating the importance of calculating and sharing return on investment. “Maybe we need to work with our talent teams and understand the cost of onboarding a new person. Gather data bespoke to your organization so you can show, when we don’t have programs like this, it costs us X. This isn’t just a line item, it’s a benefit that will produce value—in dollars—for the company.”  

What People and business leaders can do to better support caregivers  

All of our leaders seemed to agree that the many negative ramifications of employers not valuing caregiving or offering competitive caregiver leave can be rectified with the right programs and infrastructure in place and adding or modifying their policies. Here are some actions they recommend taking. 

1. Use thoughtful and inclusive language

Ellen said, “In the tech world, we’re calling people primary or secondary caregivers to be ‘inclusive’—you’re already imposing that it’s not a 50/50 split. Ultimately, having policies that ask someone to identify how much caregiving they’re doing is really asking them not to do as much.” 

Tip: Use our free caregiver leave policy generator to get started on an equitable, compliant policy.

2. Understand different types of leave

“Elder and childcare are different,” Ken explained. “Elder care is sadder. Childcare is the growth of life. The way you take time off and how you are going to come back from that time are not the same.”

Tip: Flag this reality to managers to help them be more constructive when welcoming a team member back from a leave

3. Reconsider what “essential” infrastructure looks like

According to Jocelyn, a huge learning lies in the reality caregivers experienced at the height of the pandemic. She said, “I guarantee you that in the midst of the pandemic if you had asked most families whether they wanted a safe childcare center down the street or the pothole fixed, they would’ve said childcare center. We have to get out of this mindset that that’s the only infrastructure that matters.”

Tip: Accept care as a core and essential value within your company with competitive parental, medical, and caregiver leave policies, and figure out how these coordinate with other benefits and company policies. 

4. Set managers up for success 

Ken recommends having better emergency protocols, saying, “We don’t talk about what we’re going to do if someone is needed. If you have a clear plan, it doesn’t matter as much if that person is away.” 

Tip: Plan ahead and have a process and stopgaps for employee leave as opposed to leaving the manager to stumble through the system.

It's time to enter the next generation of employee leave