Sitting up in the darkest hours of early morning, comforting his wife as she struggled with a panic attack, Darren Hinger was exhausted, knowing he had to work the next day.
“I was saying to myself, I already know I’m exhausted, I don’t have anything left to give, I have to get some sleep to have a presence the next day.”
As a full-time caregiver to his partner, who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s been a repeated scenario for Hinger over the past decade—caught between being there for his wife and also having to work a full-time job.
“It’s trying to do my best at both, and it’s exhausting.”
On Hinger’s lone salary, the couple also has a tough time making ends meet financially; he’s saved what he could, “but I know retirement is not something I can look forward to at this point.”
Those are the kinds of struggles being tackled through a new project that taps into University of Alberta research to help unpaid caregivers find jobs that fit their challenging schedules and responsibilities.
Together they’re creating a new module geared to the needs of working carers for MatchWork, whose cloud-based software platform already includes technology to identify work opportunities and connect other marginalized groups experiencing barriers to work, such as people with disabilities, newcomers, and pregnant and parenting teens.
“We know caregivers struggle to maintain paid employment alongside their responsibilities as carers, which has implications for their mental health and financial well-being, so we want to help them find the right kinds of work for where they’re at in their caregiving journeys,” said Fast, a professor of consumer and family economics in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences and co-director of the U of A’s Research on Aging Policies and Practice team.
“We’re hoping we can make this platform work to identify better work situations for them.”
Finding the right match
Information gathered through an ongoing Caregivers Alberta survey of caregivers will also help inform the MatchWork module.
Operating on the idea of “head, heart and gut,” MatchWork modules create a unique profile for each person, focused on what keeps them engaged in their work, said co-founder Kenya Kondo.
“For caregivers, we want to identify what meaningful work looks like for them so they can try to find employment that they can juggle around caregiving schedules and beyond, after the caregiving experience ends. We want them to get recommendations for jobs that fit their needs and life goals.”
The U of A research being used to shape the caregivers’ module draws on what is known about the employment barriers they face, Fast said.
“We’re taking evidence we have from previous and current work with caregivers and their employers to inform those concepts of head, heart and gut.”
Data from the survey now in the field, combined with the storehouse of U of A research on aging and caregiving, will also help create a program aimed at bridging the gap between caregivers and employers, said Sandy Sereda, CEO of Caregivers Alberta.
“We want to empower working caregivers to recognize what their workplace rights are and to be able to advocate for those rights with their employers,” Sereda said. “At the same time, we find that caregivers often feel employers won’t support them and are afraid to ask for what they need in terms of flexible work, yet employers would support them if they would only ask.”
The program could include guidance for caregivers about how to talk to an employer about caregiving at home and how to negotiate flexible work, as well as developing a business case for employers to support caregivers, what those supports could look like and what caregivers are looking for in an employer, Sereda said.
Keeping caregivers in the workforce
It’s important to try to keep caregivers from having to leave their jobs in the first place, she added.
“A lot of them are living in poverty because they left the workforce. If an employer can provide supports, they can stay in the workforce, which then also retains them as valuable, experienced employees and helps employers avoid the high cost of employee turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism—being at work but distracted by caregiving responsibilities.”
Hinger, who was able to find more flexible, better-paid work as a program administrator for Caregivers Alberta, considers himself fortunate and wishes more workplaces were able to offer viable options for caregiving, beyond limited existing options like taking sick leave with a reduced salary.
“We need a general understanding that caregiving is a legitimate workplace issue. People generally understand about staying home to care for a sick child, but if an adult spouse is home alone, scared and sick, for some reason that doesn’t bring the same understanding, yet they’re all people in vulnerable situations.”
The 25 years’ worth of research provided by the U of A strengthens the case for the rights of caregivers, Sereda noted.
“It allows us to look at caregivers’ issues through all sorts of lenses and guides us as to how we should be thinking about those issues.” Caregivers Alberta often uses fact sheets provided by the U of A to educate stakeholders about the challenges unpaid caregivers face.
“It opens peoples’ eyes to the complexities of caregiving.”
The research collaboration with academic institutions like the U of A and groups like Caregivers Alberta offers a dynamic mix of partners that boosts capacity in the non-profit sector, said Kondo, a U of A alumnus.
“It’s a sector that tends to be overlooked and doesn’t generally have the means and resources to invest in a lot of solution development, so a partnership like this one—with a mix of academic, private and not-for-profit groups—can allow for solutions that don’t just look at a transactional relationship, but truly co-create a solution that matters.”