Quit or get fired — Survey finds 1 in 20 family caregivers overwhelmed by competing demands

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Pay the bills or care for her sick child. As a single mom, Tracy Oliver says that choice felt impossible.

At the time, 14-year-old Emrrys Oliver was struggling. The teen was exhausted and in pain, stuck lying in the dark in their bed without any clear diagnosis on what could be wrong.

And for Tracy, the doctors’ visits and days at home were adding up.

“I was getting really strained at work,” said Oliver, an educational assistant in Brooks, Alta.

“I was taking so many days off, they were starting to get testy with me. Finally, I had to take stress leave because I had to be in two places at once and was mentally overwhelmed.”

“It was three months until I ran out of that sick time,” she said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. It just puts you to the point of tears.”

In Alberta, thousands of other parents, spouses and adult children are facing that same dilemma.

One study of adults caring for frail adults found one in 20 people who identify as caregivers for their loved ones quit or were fired from their jobs each year.

Missed work, quit or fired

That’s roughly 23,700 Albertans, says Jacquie Eales, part of a University of Alberta research team that analyzed the Statistics Canada’s 2018 General Social Survey on Caregiving and Care Receiving.

That same survey found one in seven caregivers reduce the hours they worked. Half of them missed days of work, an average 6.5 days a year, in order to get children, parents, spouses, siblings and other loved ones to appointments or physically tend to them when needed.

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It adds up to a lot of people, because that same study found one in four Albertans are providing unpaid care for an adult.

Janet Fast leads a research group at the University of Alberta. (University of Alberta)

Back in Brooks, Tracy Oliver returned to work after that first stress leave, even though Emrrys was still sick. But things went further downhill. Emrys started to have multiple seizures around Christmas 2020.

Tracy took one leave unpaid but had to go back. Then she stopped work again and learned she could draw employment insurance under the federal family caregiver benefit for children.

That lasted 35 weeks because Emrrys is younger than 18. It’s 15 weeks employment insurance if a person is caring for an adult, or 26 weeks if that adult is dying.

‘I need help, is what I need’

Now she’s working part-time at the school and trying to build a business offering mental health coaching on the side. She hopes it will be more flexible and let her work from home.

A psychiatrist lectured her recently on trying to do too much.

“I said: ‘What would you like me to let go of? Caring for my child? Working so that I can pay for my home and my family? I’m a single parent. What would you have me give up?'” said Tracy.

“I need help, is what I need. But that help isn’t coming,” she added. “Trying to do two or three jobs all at the same time. It’s crazy making.”

Other caregivers involved in CBC’s efforts to hear directly from people in this role said they face similar challenges. Out of a dozen men and women at one meeting, several said they retired early, quit their jobs or simply didn’t return to work because the demands were too much.

Flexible work conditions key

Janet Fast, who heads a research group on aging at the University of Alberta, says many policy makers don’t realize most people caring for frail adults are also working.

Both the federal and provincial labor codes now include the right to take several months of leave, but only part of that time comes with unemployment insurance. She says Nova Scotia is the only province that actually provides cash to someone giving significant hands-on care for a family member.

Emrrys Oliver says it was hard watching their mother stretched thin trying to provide care at home and work. (Submitted by Emrrys Oliver)

As for employers, Fast’s research found 10 per cent of all absenteeism and staff turnover is due to caregiving responsibilities of adults for other adults.

“Employers are not really aware of this as being a workplace issue, which is kind of astounding,” she said.

“The data shows really clearly that about a third of the entire Canadian workforce have additional caregiving responsibilities. If an employee can’t manage their care responsibilities alongside their employment, they’re going to be missing days of work, quitting their job, retiring early, or they’ll be less productive when they are at work.… It’s very expensive.”

Her team is trying to help employers find ways to increase the flexibility at work and change the culture so employees talk about what they need.

She says even letting someone carry a personal cellphone or bank their overtime can help. They’re also working with an Edmonton-based technology company, MyMatchWork.comto try to connect family caregivers to more flexible jobs when they run stuck.

Emrrys said one of the hardest parts for them has been watching their mother go through this.

“People assume that caregivers have infinite amounts to give,” Emrrys said. “It’s hard to describe how sad it is to see yourself needing care and to see your mother needing care, too.

“Like, to put this in your mind. Your health is going downhill. You can’t leave the couch, and you watch your mom trying not to sob. Just the level of agony. It’s not fair and not much is being done about it.”

Giving care

The CBC team in Alberta is focusing this month on family caregivers — the husbands, wives, children and others who take on the care of loved ones. Follow the news and personal stories at cbc.ca/familycare.


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