Caring For Sick Relatives Without Losing Your Job (or Your Mind)

If you haven’t had to care for an elderly or ill loved one, you either know someone who has or you will soon do it, too. Seniors now, for the first time, comprise the largest age group in the country and will be the first to rely on a less affluent younger generation to care for them. One in six employees cares for an elderly or disabled family member, but less than 25% of them have assistance in navigating benefits available to help them. Having been in this position myself, I can offer some advice.

Can I get fired?

Let’s get the worry out of the way first. If you’re caring for a child or immediate family member with a serious health condition, the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides twelve weeks of unpaid leave. You are not entitled to your salary during that time, but you are entitled to health coverage under your employer’s group medical plan and your employer must hold your job (or an equivalent one) for you as long as you return to work at the end of those twelve weeks. To qualify for FMLA leave, you must have worked for at least one year for an employer that has 50 or more employees.

If you work for a smaller company with less than 50 employees or you don’t otherwise qualify for FMLA leave, you are considered an “at will” employee. Unfortunately, the employer has the right to terminate you for not being able to meet the demands of your job. While some employers are understanding and will try to accommodate you through the challenging time, others might not be so flexible. Check your employee handbook or contact your Human Resources department for any special policies or other resources that may be helpful.

There are things you can do to keep your career on track.

Talk to your employer and colleagues.

Just go ahead and put it all out there. The sooner your employer knows, the sooner you can put a plan in place about how you will manage your responsibilities or take time off while caring for your relative. Send the right signal by including your comeback plan, too.

You and your manager may be able to agree to a short-term alternative work arrangement that would allow you more flexibility. For instance, you may be able to get a compressed workweek, telecommute from home, schedule different working hours so that you can switch off with your caregiver. It might also be possible to job share or reduce your hours to a part-time position. Employers that are not accustomed to alternative work arrangements like those may be more at ease if you give advance notice of needing every other Wednesday, for example, and set a date and time a few weeks out to connect with your manager and make sure your new schedule works for everyone.

Even if you take time off from your job, don’t shut yourself off entirely. Check in regularly with your colleagues and manager, offer them alternative ways to reach you while you are away, talk to your co-workers about new matters that may come in while you’re away, and find ways to make your temporary leave as easy for your employer as possible. In other words, show your manager that you want him/her to be taken care of as well.

Your employer may have other resources available to help you. Take advantage of employee assistance programs that might offer counseling or recommendations for corporate or local support groups. There may be little changes you can request that could make your life more convenient, like a parking space next to your building to make it faster for you to get home in case of emergencies.

What if caring for my family member leaves a gap on my resume?

If you need to resign from your job, you will need to explain any prolonged gap on your resume. You don’t need to go into detail. A short and simple explanation in your work history section like “devoted time to managing temporary family situation” is all you need. Listing your activities during the caregiving period, like classes or training you completed or other efforts to stay current with your overall job responsibilities, will demonstrate your eagerness to return to work. You can reiterate those points in the cover letter or interview. Practice your answers to questions about the resume gap. Hiring managers are people, too, and your explanation should suffice.

Take care of you

I know first-hand that caring for family members can be deeply rewarding, but it can also be an emotional rollercoaster. It is stressful, often thankless, 24/7 job to manage on top of your other responsibilities. You don’t have to go it alone; try to recruit siblings and friends to help with housework, errands, even cooking dinner one night of the week. I regret not saying yes more often to offers of help.

Given the stress and burnout that comes with caregiving, it is no surprise that family caregivers are at increased risk for depression, stress-related illness, and excessive use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Exercise can curb stress and lift your mood. Who wouldn’t feel better about losing weight, too? My number one piece of advice is to stay connected with friends and family. Caregiving can be lonely. Plan weekly, recurring non-negotiable appointments to go to the movies, out to lunch, take up a hobby with a friend, carve out several short breaks to meditate or journal, or do anything social.

You can make it work while still working with some advance planning and support from your employer, family and friends.