Absence Management: Caring for Family, Near and Far

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Todd Meier

Life throws us curve balls. They come out of the blue and may take people by complete surprise. Employers realize their employees will need to take care of family issues from time to time, but have you considered how your organization will handle these situations?

Here’s an example: What if one of your employees has used up most of his or her paid time off for the year and suddenly finds out a parent, who lives more than 2,000 miles away, was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer and has about two months to live?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles an employee to up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to care of a parent with a serious health condition.1 Whether the absence is continuous or intermittent, there are a number of ways employers can accommodate. Here are some examples:

  • Allow the employee to work remotely from the parent’s home if the employee cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
  • Give the employee the option to borrow paid time off from the following year.
  • Work with the employee to create a flexible schedule to make up missed work time.
  • Allow flexibility during the day, when the employee has to make phone calls, arrange travel, talk with treating physicians or coordinate palliative/hospice/nursing home care.

But it’s not just distance that can cause a complex absence situation. What if a parent suddenly takes ill and lives in the same town?

Employees in this situation will need flexibility to visit the hospital, consult with treating doctors and may need to take their loved one to doctor’s visits. Proactively working with employees to come up with a work schedule and workload that’s conducive to their individual situation can go a long way in freeing them up to manage their situation and, for your organization’s sake, retaining these employees.

Elder care may become a more common reason for employee absences. Why? According to research conducted at the Pew Research Center, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s are either raising a young child and/or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older), with 30 percent also helping with an aging parent’s affairs.2

Because of this, now may be a good time to review your employee policy on family-related absences. Here are a few best practices from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

  • Ensure managers understand the legal implications of how they treat employees with caregiving responsibilities.
  • Write an equal employment opportunity (EEO) policy that includes defined terms (such as who is included as “family”) and is free from common stereotypes.
  • Work with managers to make employees aware of work-life balance programs.
  • Review workplace flexibility policies to ensure they’re family-friendly.3

Caring for aging parents is just one of the complex situations your middle-aged workforce may be managing. Empathy and creative, accommodative assistance to help your employees will go a long way in helping them fulfill their personal responsibilities while remaining healthy, happy and productive contributors to your organization.


1 U.S. Department of Labor. Fact Sheet #28F: Qualifying Reasons for Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28f.pdf. Published August 2013. Accessed September 24, 2014.

2 Pew Research Center. The Sandwich Generation: Rising Financial Burdens for Middle-Aged Americans. pewsocialtrends.org/2013/01/30/the-sandwich-generation. Published January 30, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2014.

3 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employer Best Practices for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities. eeoc.gov/policy/docs/caregiver-best-practices.html. Published January 19, 2011. Accessed October 27, 2014.