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The ‘Sandwich Generation’ is in a pickle

three generations of women

If you’ve found yourself reading an email from your boss, fielding an “urgent” text from your 22-year-old daughter, while on hold with your father’s nurse — you’re not alone.

According to Pew Research, nearly half of Americans in their 40s and 50s are part of the growing Sandwich Generation, people “sandwiched” between aging parents and dependent children. What’s more, about one in seven of these middle-aged adults are providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The emotional, financial and time demands of dual caregiving can easily derail personal and professional goals. As a result, the nation’s primary caregivers, women, are turning down promotions, even leaving their jobs.

“We’re working, we’re over-parenting, we’re taking care of our elderly parents who are living longer — and we’re trying to keep our marriages sexy and fun,” author Sandra Tsing Loh recently said.

“It would be mad to think we could take on all of this stuff and not break down eventually. I know plenty of women who devote half their Weight Watchers points to Pinot Grigio. Multitasking, caregiving women will start to blame themselves, even though they’re twirling 50 plates,” Loh told APlaceforMom.com.

A report by MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving shows the financial toll of dual caretaking. Women who leave the workforce early to care for an aging parent lose an average of $142,693 in wages. The average loss of Social Security benefits is another $131,351, and an additional $50,000 is lost in pension payments. That amounts to a whopping average of $324,044 in lost income per caregiver.

Companies’ bottom lines are affected too. MetLife estimates that failing to support workers with elder-care responsibilities can cost as much as $34 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, disengagement, turnover and increased health-care costs.

Here are a few suggestions for creating real change that supports the Sandwich Generation and benefits your business:

Flex-work policies

Flexible work schedules are critical to caregivers — and smart for businesses. Numerous studies show job sharing, flex hours, telecommuting and similar benefits have little or no upfront costs, but realize a significant return on investment through more productivity, better retention and healthier (less stressed-out!) employees.

A 2014 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, for example, revealed 52 percent of workers surveyed believe they could do their job better if they are allowed a more flexible schedule. Women have been on the forefront fighting for workplace flexibility. The irony? Nearly three out of four teleworkers are men, according to a study by Flex+Strategy Group.

Perhaps surprisingly, small employers (50 to 99 employees) are more likely to offer flexible work arrangement than large employers (more than 1,000 employees), according to the National Study of Employers published by the Families and Work Institute. Small employers are more likely to allow employees to flex their schedules, work some hours at home, choose when to take breaks and take time off during the workday to attend to important family personal needs — with pay.

Workplace wellness

Self-care — through exercise, stress management techniques and healthy choices — is critical for primary caregivers. And companies that offer workplace wellness programs are reaping the rewards, according to the Society of Human Resource Management’s Strategic Benefits-Wellness Initiatives report. Nearly two-thirds of the organizations included in report offer some type of wellness program — to the benefit of the employees and the bottom line.

Almost one half of the HR professionals at those companies said wellness initiatives decreased their health care costs. Two-fifths said wellness initiatives decreased unplanned absences; one-third said the initiatives increased work productivity. The most common wellness incentives or rewards: A reduction in employee health care premiums (38 percent) and gift cards (37 percent).

Family care resources

Much of the searching, emailing and phone calling around family care happens during business hours. It makes good business sense for employers to offer resources that help caregivers trim the time they spend finding resources.

“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," Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, told Care.com.

Nearly 40 percent of the companies surveyed by the National Study of Employers provide access to information that help employees locate child care in the community, and nearly half provide elder care resources. Some companies go as far as subsidizing care-giving options by selected vendors.

More employers are sponsoring caregiver back-up plans, which help provide last-minute care for a child or elder parent. A study of 5,100 employees using one such plan offered by Bright Horizons, shows the benefits. Ninety percent of employees surveyed said back-up care enhanced their productivity. Nearly as many said they were able to work at least one day in the previous six months they otherwise would have missed (an average of five days per employee).

As transition planner Stephanie Chan puts it, employers who show they care “will go a long way in keeping employees happy and less stressed when they are likely to be most valuable to your organization.”

Positive policies and programs can lighten the load faced by the Sandwich Generation. They can also help you keep trained talent, reduce absenteeism, improve morale and boost productivity — and create a better workplace for everyone.

This blog first appeared in Convenience Store News.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of Network of Executive Women, whose 11,000 members represent 950 companies and 105 corporate partners in 21 regions in North America.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.