End of life leave as important as parental leave

Lisa Annese
Topics Flexibility

In recent weeks DCA has been focusing on ‘eldercare’ and its impact on the workplace through our Diversity Leadership Program and Diversity Matters update. At the Leadership event, one of our speakers, Katherine Stone from Carers NSW said something which has resonated deeply with me since. 

To paraphrase, Katherne said that organisations invest a great deal of time and energy in providing their employees with ‘start of life’ leave. This of course refers to parental leave, taken by primary carers on the birth or adoption of a child, which is now a firmly entrenched and highly valued employee entitlement. Many leading practice employers offer generous paid parental leave on top of the national paid parental leave scheme and the issue remains a hot one for the current government. 

Australia has moved a long way in a very short time to a general consensus that parental leave is important for the well-being of children, parents and our broader society.  The business case is also well documented – employers with good parental leave support benefit from lower staff turnover, recruitment and training costs, improved employee satisfaction and commitment and a greater ability to attract new employees. Surveys show that companies offering paid parental leave have retention rates 11% greater than those that don’t.

But what about leave for the other end of life? As Katherine pointed out, employers should also think about ‘end-of-life’ leave – families only get one chance to get it right and the business benefits for supporting employees through this period of transition are just as strong.

Reflecting on end-of-life leave in the same way as parental leave can be a bit confronting – it forces us to reflect on our own mortality.  However, it is inevitable, and something that an increasing number of us will face while still in the paid workforce.

And while bringing new life into the world is normally a time of joy, promise, anticipation and excitement, the end of life often brings decline, grief and loss. But this life stage is no less important in terms of the impact on carers and on their workplaces.

At last count, 2.7 million Australians were carers, and according to the ABS, more than half of all carers are employed – including close to a third of those who spend 40 hours or more per week caring.  What is more, with the ageing of our population, most people's lives will include at least one episode of unpaid caring. Given the reality that employees bring their ‘whole selves’ to work – regardless of whether they feel able to be open about their lives or not – there will be inevitable productivity impacts of increased stress and unplanned absenteeism.  But employers who are proactive in managing dependent care needs will enjoy increases in productivity and employee engagement.

A recent UK study of employer support for carers found that those with policies in place to support carers identified a range of benefits including their ability to attract and retain staff, reduced recruitment and training costs, reduced sick leave and absenteeism, increased productivity, improved service delivery, cost savings, increased staff morale, and improved staff engagement, people management and team working.

So what can employers do to support their employees who have caring responsibilities, especially eldercare?  For a start, organisations need to broaden their views about dependent care so it’s not just about childcare. Employers need to accept the reality that many workers need to manage responsibilities to care for elderly parents, partners or other loved ones going through periods of illness, disability or at the end of life. 

One of the most significant challenges is that often elder care is more unpredictable than childcare; it can vary in intensity and the length of time care is required is often uncertain as an outcome can’t always be anticipated.  A fall resulting in a broken hip, a PET scan revealing a cancer has metastasised, or the regressive onset of dementia can all mean a tipping point at which an individual has no choice but to prioritise family over work. Structuring support for employees who are caring for loved ones at the end of their lives is also complicated by the fact that we do not usually get to plan or choose if and when we require this type of leave, and the circumstances are often traumatic or crisis-driven. Employers need to recognise that it’s not just about employees providing physical care for their loved ones. Care in these situations can also come with a whole other layer of emotion including needing to provide psychological support to the care recipient, while coping with your own feelings about the reversal of roles and potential loss.

Unlike childcare, caring for elderly relatives or dependents does not end after the HSC or VCE and a global gap year.  This type of dependent care can go on for many, many years and when it does end, we are usually coping with loss and grief.  It is also likely to continue as most people have more than one parent, potentially in-laws, their own partners and other members of their family.

As with so many other issues, offering genuine workplace flexibility is key for leading practice employers who want to support their employees with their eldercare commitments and/or end-of-life care.  DCA's Get Flexible! research demonstrates benefits in terms of business performance, productivity and sustainability as well as workforce well-being and sustainability. In many workplaces, people can stay engaged with the workplace without being physically present through technology, through team-based objectives or activity-based working so that leave may be minimised or even avoided.

In addition to paid leave and workplace flexibility, other leading employers are offering carers support through initiatives such as providing access to aged care resource and referral services, and discounted back-up home care for emergencies. But ultimately, perhaps the most important thing an employer can do is to be 'care aware' – that is to make a commitment to support carers in your organisation, to communicate with all employees about what it means to be a carer and to talk to carers in your organisation about their needs.

It is indeed a new idea in many workplaces that we should be offering support for employees with end-of-life caring. But with at least one in eight employees already combining their work with caring, why should it be a distant dream? As they say, nothing is certain but death and taxes so surely this is something we can be proactive about for the benefit of everyone.

Lisa Annese
Chief Executive Officer

Twitter @LisaAnnese@DivCouncilAus

For more information on how you can support your employees with caring responsibilities, become a member of Diversity Council Australia. Visit www.dca.org.au or call us on (02) 8014 4300.

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