Care­giv­ing and co-work­ers

De­vel­op­ing a lan­guage that mean­ing­fully res­onates with our ex­pe­ri­ences is an es­sen­tial step to­ward cre­at­ing and lever­ag­ing so­cial sup­port

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY DONNA THOM­SON Donna Thom­son is a care­giver, au­thor and ac­tivist. She is a board di­rec­tor of the Kids Brain Health Net­work and ad­vises from a fam­ily per­spec­tive on nu­mer­ous health re­search projects. She also teaches fam­i­lies how to ad­vo­cate for care at

Talk­ing about care­giv­ing at work can be dif­fi­cult and stress­ful. And that’s im­por­tant be­cause 35 per cent of all em­ployed Cana­di­ans have car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at home.

Dr. Zachary White is an ex­pert in the bar­ri­ers that nat­u­ral care­givers face in ex­plain­ing their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at home to oth­ers, in­clud­ing em­ploy­ers. White is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Queens Univer­sity in Char­lotte, N.C., who has re­cently made work­ing care­givers the sub­ject of his re­search.

White also blogs reg­u­larly about the mean­ing, stress and un­cer­tainty of daily car­ing at The Un­pre­pared Care­giver and he is a se­nior ad­viser at the Cana­dian care­giver sup­port fo­rum Hud­dol.

Here’s part of a con­ver­sa­tion I had with White.

Thom­son: What are the big­gest bar­ri­ers to com­mu­ni­cat­ing about care­giv­ing in the work­place?

White: In the in­evitable blur­ring of work and home life, care­givers must con­stantly ne­go­ti­ate the pos­si­ble re­wards of re­ceiv­ing peer sup­port at work while also at­tempt­ing to make good judg­ments about how and with whom to share their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences.

On the one hand, care­givers want to openly ex­press what’s go­ing on in their lives at home. On the other hand, care­givers also un­der­stand the pos­si­ble risks of dis­clos­ing their care­giver ex­pe­ri­ences in the work­place. For ex­am­ple, with whom should they share their ex­pe­ri­ences? Who do they not want to know? How might col­leagues view them af­ter their dis­clo­sures? Will col­leagues feel like care re­spon­si­bil­i­ties will take away from pro­duc­tiv­ity and thus in­crease oth­ers’ work­loads? How of­ten should nat­u­ral care­givers share their care chal­lenges, and in what for­mat (e.g., in per­son, tele­phone, email, text)?

Thom­son: Has your re­search shown how we should com­mu­ni­cate care re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at work?

White: There’s no hand­book for what should be said be­cause each sit­u­a­tion and em­ployee con­cerns are dif­fer­ent. How­ever, if an em­ployee chooses to share his or her care­giver ex­pe­ri­ences at work, they might ben­e­fit from the abil­ity to con­trol their nar­ra­tive. In­stead of hav­ing to re­spond to a ques­tion that might arouse de­fen­sive­ness (“What’s wrong with you - you don’t seem to be per­form­ing like you nor­mally do?”), proac­tively shar­ing care­giver ex­pe­ri­ences in the work­place might al­low a care­giver to pro­vide vi­tal con­text, which might lead to greater em­ployer un­der­stand­ing.

A will­ing­ness and abil­ity to frame one’s care­giver ex­pe­ri­ences as an on­go­ing jour­ney, for ex­am­ple, might re­di­rect the mys­tery of “What’s go­ing on?” with the care­giver/em­ployee to “How can I help to ease the pres­sures in my em­ployee’s life?”

Ex­plain­ing how you’re try­ing to in­te­grate your care re­spon­si­bil­i­ties into your work re­spon­si­bil­i­ties might also re­duce un­cer­tainty amongst peers in the work­place.

An em­ployee need not have all of the an­swers here, but merely ini­ti­at­ing this con­ver­sa­tion might en­cour­age col­lec­tive sense mak­ing and prob­lem solv­ing.

Ad­di­tion­ally, a one-time dis­clo­sure will usu­ally not suf­fice be­cause most care­giver ex­pe­ri­ences are chronic.

Fi­nally, a care­giver should be pre­pared to think about what types of chan­nels might be best to com­mu­ni­cate their ex­pe­ri­ences to oth­ers. Face-to­face dis­clo­sures might be best for the ini­tial dis­clo­sures of con­text, but email typ­i­cally is the pre­ferred medium em­ploy­ees use to dis­close about their care­giver ex­pe­ri­ences be­cause it al­lows for greater con­trol and flex­i­bil­ity over the mes­sage. How­ever, not all work­places (nor em­ploy­ees) are the same, so I would sug­gest think­ing about which me­dia you might pre­fer to use to com­mu­ni­cate given your sit­u­a­tion and the spe­cific cul­ture of the work­place.

With­out a lan­guage to ex­plain our ex­pe­ri­ences to oth­ers in the work­place, nat­u­ral care­giv­ing will re­main mys­te­ri­ous and stig­ma­tized, neg­a­tively af­fect­ing our em­pow­er­ment and re­silience.

De­vel­op­ing a lan­guage that mean­ing­fully res­onates with our ex­pe­ri­ences is an es­sen­tial step to­ward cre­at­ing and lever­ag­ing so­cial sup­port, con­nect­ing to oth­ers and ex­plain­ing care ex­pe­ri­ences in ways that peers at work will un­der­stand.

For more in­for­ma­tion on work­ing care­givers in Canada, see the Vanier In­sti­tute’s re­port A Snapshot of Fam­ily Care­giv­ing and Work in Canada.


Thirty-five per cent of all em­ployed Cana­di­ans have care­giv­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at home.

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