Companies face a growing yet largely undetected threat to their worker productivity, employee retention and, ultimately, competitive advantage: the needs of employees who are caregivers.

The aging population, an increasingly female workforce, and the tightest job market in half a century make supporting caregivers a critical talent management issue, according to a new report, The Caring Company: How Employers Can Cut Costs and Boost Productivity by Helping Employees Manage Caregiving Needs (pdf), by Harvard Business School’s Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman.

“Helping employees address their personal caregiving obligations is an approach employers almost entirely overlook as a mechanism for maximizing employee productivity and minimizing turnover,” the authors write in the study, which was released Wednesday.

With almost three-quarters of employees providing care to a child, parent, or friend, more workers are scaling back, stepping away, or choosing alternative professional opportunities that help them balance these demands.

Companies that ignore this emerging crisis risk losing their hardest-to-find and highest-paid employees—skilled, educated professionals—potentially to competitors that move faster to meet caregivers’ needs. With those employees goes the substantial investment that companies make in recruiting, retention, and training, says Fuller, who co-leads the Managing the Future of Work project. Raman is the project’s program director and senior researcher.

“Companies don’t realize that there are material returns associated with helping these workers,” says Fuller, a professor of management practice. “If I told an executive, ‘You could reduce your turnover of key personnel by 3 percent,’ they would say, ‘Where do I sign?’”

The caregiving perception gap

To quantify this business issue, members of Fuller’s team surveyed two groups. They asked 301 human resource leaders and business owners in the United States how they approach caregiving benefits. And they asked 1,500 employees who provide or expected to provide unpaid care how those responsibilities affected their careers. Even though the majority of employers and employees said they considered their organizations inclusive and fair, employees said that employers penalized caregivers, especially when their duties caused them to miss work, come in late, or leave early. Among employees surveyed:

  • 59 percent said that caregivers are perceived as less committed to their careers
  • 55 percent said caregivers are less likely to progress as fast as their peers, even if they put forth the same effort
  • 47 percent said that caregiving affected their work performance all or most of the time
  • 32 percent admitted to leaving jobs that didn’t support their caregiving needs


Employers, represented by the HR leaders and business owners, seemed oblivious to employees’ challenges, with only 24 percent acknowledging that caregiving impacted performance. However, the behaviors that hold back an employee’s career were clear, with 33 percent of employers blaming missed work days and 28 percent citing lateness.


In their defense, employers said they provide benefits for caregivers—if only employees would use them. While 65 percent of employers said they offered flexible working arrangements—the most common caregiving benefit—only 39 percent of employees said they have used the benefit. Workers who haven’t said they feared that a flexible work arrangement would make them seem less committed.

Not surprisingly, few employers measure the impact of their employees’ caregiving responsibilities, saying that such an effort wasn’t needed, invaded workers’ privacy, or cost too much. Without this data, few companies understand the true costs of staff turnover, compromised productivity, and absenteeism.