Bob Moritz, chairman and senior partner at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, believes that offering employees more flexibility so they can handle their caregiving duties will ultimately benefit companies’ bottom lines. “If you’re engaging your workforce – and that doesn’t matter if it’s next-gen millennials versus baby boomers, male, female – does not matter. If you’re engaging them, you’re going to get 75 percent more productivity,” he said before a packed audience  at the White House Summit on Working Families last June.

Engagement, he told listeners, doesn’t mean more work hours but better performance – something flexibility can actually enable . PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, changed its leave policy four years ago, allowing employees to take unlimited paid sick leave –  not just for illnesses but also to care for older adults and kids. The result? The number of sick days taken, on average, went down, not up. “You actually got more productivity,” he says.

That’s welcome news – and a refreshing attitude – for the growing number of employees who also double as caregivers for their aging parents . According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports long-term caregivers of friends or family, most Americans will serve as caregivers to older adults at some point in their lives. What's more, the graying of baby boomers means that the elderly population (defined as those over age 65) will double in the next 30 years, reaching 81.2 million by 2040. And many of them will rely on family members for  assistance.

Employer policies, though, are still lagging behind this reality. Rather than offering employers more flexibility in the face of these trends, many employers are becoming more rigid. The 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute found that compared to 2008, employers have cut back on the ways employees can take time away from full-time work to handle personal responsibilities – such as through job-sharing, working part of the year or taking career breaks. The study did find, however, that employers are increasingly sensitive to elder care needs , and 3 in 4 employers surveyed said they provide either paid or unpaid leave to allow employees to care for older adults.

What caregivers really want, experts say, is more options for managing their time and greater flexibility – especially when it comes to caring for loved ones without using vacation days. “They want more understanding of their situation from management,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, at the November Gerontological Society of America conference in the District of Columbia.

At the conference, Matos also emphasized that companies, too, can benefit from helping caregiving employees navigate work-life balance. Elder-care crises alone cost employers of “full-time, intense caregivers” about $1.6 billion each year in lost productivity, he said.

Here are some ways companies are assisting their caregiving employees – and in turn, making it easier for them to remain productive:

1. Flexible leave policies. Like PwC, other companies are offering more flexible leave policies. Unlimited vacation policies at tech startups and established firms like Virgin America are making it easier for caregivers to handle their personal responsibilities.

2. Better information. Arming employees with information about services for elderly family members can be useful, but only about 43 percent of employers currently do so, according to the Families and Work Institute.

3. Dependent care assistance programs for elder care or access to respite care. These are relatively common ways employers are helping caregivers of older adults, says the Families and Work Institute. Three in four employers nationwide offer dependent care assistance programs for elder care, and 7 percent offer access to respite care, designed to give caregivers a break.

4. Empathy. It sounds relatively simple, but kindness and understanding from managers can go a long way toward easing a caregiver's burden. "More understanding of their situation from management” was among  the most common wishes caregivers expressed when asked how workplaces could better support them, according to Matos.

5. Control over schedules. Caregivers report sometimes needing to arrive to work late, work from home or leave in the middle of the day to attend to their duties . If employers allow for that flexibility without penalizing employees, then employees could maintain their productivity in the other hours of the day – a win-win.

Moritz of PwC believes flexibility should be 24/7, 365 days a year, and that company leaders, all the way up to the CEO and board, need to be vocal supporters of these policies in order for them to be successful. “We do have a stigma issue still with us," he said at the White House Summit. "It is the responsibility of the management team to make this stuff happen." Applause erupted.

Editor's note: Kimberly Palmer wrote this article through a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, with support from AARP.

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Raymond Mitchell, Author

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