By now you've heard that there's something called "the Sandwich Generation." But what is it? Does it have to do with Baby Boomers, or those pesky Millennials? And does it come with a pickle on the side?
Well, the answer is "Yes." Minus the pickle. The Sandwich Generation is a growing population, generally in their 40s and 50s, who are "sandwiched" between their aging parents and their children. In addition to varying levels of caregiving responsibilities, most members of the Sandwich Generation are also in the workforce.
The Sandwich Generation is bigger than you might think. Nearly half of adults -- and 60 percent of the workforce -- are caring for aging parents or disabled adults, according to studies by MetLife and Pew Research Center. It's not just women: research has shown 45 percent of Americans taking care of elderly relatives are men. And, at a time when Americans are living longer and one in five young adults live with their parents, the Sandwich Generation won't be shrinking any time soon.
The Sandwich Generation is struggling with work-life issues. A majority of working Sandwich Generation caregivers are forced to make adjustments in their careers, such as turning down promotions, scaling back hours or even leaving their jobs.
And as Sandwich Generation employees feel the pressure of work and home, their employers, too, are feeling the effects. Businesses are losing tens of billions each year in lost productivity costs due to care-related issues.
"If America wants to remain competitive as a global economic leader, we as a country, and as business owners, need to be cognizant of and responsive to the caregiving needs of our working families", says Chris Duchesene, Care.com's Vice President of Global Workplace Solutions."This has the potential to sneak up on us, especially in regard to adult and senior care."
With that in mind, here are a few ways companies can meet the needs of their Sandwich Generation employees.
Invite the Conversation
Supporting Sandwich Generation employees starts with engaging them. Workplace conversations about senior care responsibilities aren't always as easy as chatting about burping babies or Little League games. It's important to create a workplace culture where employees are comfortable talking about how what's happening in their lives is affecting their job and stress levels.
"People have complex lives, where they have family needs, their own needs and ever-expanding job needs", says Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute. "We're having too many issue-specific conversations instead of the bigger, broader conversation about restructuring time and managing expectations."
Having the flexibility to balance responsibilities at work and home is huge for Sandwich Generation employees, who could be dealing with both the systematized child care needs and situational senior care needs."Be as flexible as possible when unpredictable needs come up," says Kristine Bertini, author of Strength for the Sandwich Generation and a professor at the University of Southern Maine. "This is a huge thing, because employees are really afraid to show vulnerability in front of their bosses, because they're worried that they're going to be replaced."
Even when the care isn't urgent, flexibility is key. Knowing it's OK to leave a little early on Tuesdays to pick the kids up from school or to work from home on Fridays when dad has his doctor's appointments will go a long way toward allowing employees to find the work-life balance that lets them focus on the task at hand and be more productive.
Offer Child and Senior Care-Related Benefits
As supporting working families becomes more of a national conversation, many are offering some level of child and elder care assistance. For example, 37 percent of companies provide access to information to help employees locate child care in the community, and nearly half provide elder care resources and referrals, according to FWI's 2014 National Study of Employers. Some leading companies are taking it a step further, by offering services like Care.coms suite of Workplace Solutions (which can include senior care planning by Master's level social workers) as benefits to their employees.
Be Informed, and a Resource for Your Employees
Being able to take away some of the "low emotion responsibilities" will be valuable for your employees, according to Matos. Having a senior care toolkit and child care or summer camp referrals readily available through HR can help Sandwich Generation employees skip over weeks of searching and stress. It can also curb the kind of multi-tasking that kills productivity.
"The more the employer can be a filter on information, it saves so much time that employees might otherwise be spending on elder care websites hunting for what their family needs and how they can get through the day," says Matos.
Although it might take an investment up front, experts say supporting your Sandwich Generation employees is smart business in the long run. Because when employees feel supported in the workplace, research has shown that absenteeism and stress levels drop, and productivity and retention rates improve.