Caregivers Incur Higher Health Costs for Selves

By Beth Baker

Sep. 1, 2010

It’s no surprise that employees who care for older relatives may cost employers more in terms of reduced productivity and higher absenteeism. But a recent study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute now finds that family caregivers tend to have higher health care costs as well.

“We’re trying to make a case to have employers think about their caregivers and what they can do to support them,” says Sandra Timmerman, director of the institute. “We looked at hidden costs that caregivers incur to call attention to the issue.”

The study estimates that U.S. employers pay 8 percent more per year in health care costs for employees who care for elders than for employees without those responsibilities. This could potentially cost U.S. employers $13.4 billion per year, according to the report. The good news, Timmerman stresses, is there are “low-cost or no-cost” solutions to the problem. In particular, the study urges employers to better integrate caregivers into wellness programs.

To conduct the study, MetLife partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Institute on Aging and the National Alliance for Caregiving. The researchers analyzed data in a single company’s health risk appraisal questionnaire, completed by 17,000 employees. Twelve percent said they were responsible for care of an elderly friend or relative. Of these employees, almost half were 50 or older and more than half were blue collar.

Among the chronic conditions more prevalent in caregivers than noncaregivers: depression, costing the company an estimated $6,380 in increased medical expenses; hypertension combined with coronary artery disease, costing $30,073; and diabetes, costing $14,979.

Younger female caregivers, 18 to 39 years old, reported especially high levels of stress—22 percent felt stress at home “almost always,” compared with 12 percent of their non-caregiving counterparts.

“We found that work can become a respite from caregiving,” Timmerman says. “It is a way that people can step back. They want to do a good job because they find work to be a break from their caregiving responsibilities.”

Annette Byrd, global lead for flexibility and performance at GlaxoSmithKline in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, says the study confirms her observations. “I see people who have had a long-term caregiving responsibility,” she says. “I see them get sick because they’ve burned the candle at both ends and not gotten their own mammograms and not eaten right.”

What caregiving employees most value, Byrd says, is flexibility in their schedule, a sympathetic boss and co-workers who will help them out on occasion—none of which costs money.

But even when companies do offer support to employees, they may find few takers. Byrd says that of 20,000 GlaxoSmithKline employees in the U.S., just 200 annually take advantage of the company’s elder care program, even though “we promote it like crazy.”

One reason, suggests Sherri Snelling, senior director of corporate social responsibility and strategic relationships for Evercare in Cypress, California, is that economic hard times make employees uneasy. In a 2009 study, Evercare, which is part of UnitedHealthcare, found that 50 percent of working caregivers reported feeling both more stress and less comfort asking managers for time off for caregiving duties since the recession began.

Workforce Management, July 2010, p. 8Subscribe Now!

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