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How to manage the sandwich generation

A good work-life balance can be a challenge for many people, especially those juggling multiple caregiving demands, often dubbed ‘the sandwich generation’. Such responsibilities can have an outsized impact on employee productivity, mental and physical health and more. As an employer, knowing how to support these workers can make a significant difference. In this article, we examine what it means to have the unique responsibilities of this demographic and how to help the sandwich generation thrive in the workplace.

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What is the sandwich generation?

Like the filling that brings meaning to two slices of bread, people in the so-called sandwich generation have caregiving responsibilities on both ends. Typically, they’re caring for children or grandchildren who are still minors, as well as parents or in-laws who are struggling with their health or other, age-related challenges. Depending on the needs of these elders, they may be offering extensive care within their own homes or providing increasing support to someone who is still living independently.

There are numerous types of sandwich configurations. Younger people may be caring for a parent affected by illness while also looking after a grandparent. Older people may find themselves looking after minors or a partner with care needs alongside grandchildren. And those who have offspring or other loved ones with special needs can be particularly weighted with care duties.

How do caregiving responsibilities affect employees?

Employees in the sandwich generation can be any age, but the largest demographic is people in middle age – their forties and fifties. This is the age when those who are parents often find their own parents becoming less self-sufficient while their children are still school-aged. Employees in their forties and fifties are also often in senior roles, with workplace responsibilities that are varied and intense. When your executive and management employees are dealing with increased demands on their personal time, this can affect the quality and volume of their work output as well as their interactions with others. Let’s look at some of the other common ways that sandwich generation employees can be affected at work:

  • Reduced or unpredictable hours and limited availability: Caregiving can often result in emergencies or problems that crop up unexpectedly, forcing employees to take unplanned time off work or leave days. In extreme cases, an employee may no longer be able to work the full-time hours that their position calls for or even stay in the role. They might also not be able to fulfil requests or attend meetings at short notice.
  • High stress levels: When the professional and personal demands placed on a person exceed their ability to perform at their best, this can result in high stress levels that impact their functioning.
  • Increase in physical illness or strain: Stress can take a toll on the immune system and the body’s ability to heal. It’s also known to have a negative impact on physiological processes like blood pressure and heart rate. When a person is under pressure and is also time-poor, they may make fewer healthy dietary choices or be less able to stick to a fitness regime, two factors that can lead to a decline in physical and mental health over time. Care work can also be physically demanding, leading to a higher risk of strain or injury, particularly for older people.
  • Limited capacity for professional growth: Excelling at work, developing new skills and working towards promotions often require plenty of free time and a relaxed headspace. When sandwich generation employees are pulled in too many directions, they may feel like they don’t have the time or resources to advance their career.
  • Risk of exhaustion or burnout: Some people may end up stuck in the sandwich generation for an extended period of time. Depending on their specific responsibilities and the amount of support that they have from others in their life, their stress may escalate to the point of exhaustion or even a serious burnout that requires time off work.
  • Financial difficulties: If an employee finds that their care duties require them to reduce their hours, it can put a strain on their finances. This is especially pertinent if they’re in a more junior role, are their family’s primary breadwinner or have significant costs associated with caring for their loved ones.
  • Escalation of mental-health challenges: Employees who already struggled with their mental health, whether anxiety, depression or other mental disorders, may find symptoms worsening. Stress can even trigger the onset of new conditions. Cognitive conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome and others can also be exacerbated by high levels of stress and/or a perceived lack of support.
  • Difficulty with workplace relationships: Stressed employees may struggle to communicate effectively with their peers, line managers or direct reports. This can make conflicts or misunderstandings more likely. Employees in mentorship roles may end up feeling that they don’t have much left in the tank to give to their mentees after catering to their caregiving duties.

Related: Guide to managing employee stress in the workplace

Why helping the sandwich generation is so important

The physical, emotional and financial impact of caregiving reaches beyond the people in this role. The children who are being raised, the adults who are being cared for and the community at large can all be affected. When sandwich generation employees feel supported and looked after at work, have enough time for their personal lives and are able to maintain an adequate income, this typically has a knock-on effect on everyone involved, including other employees. Creating a nurturing environment for your staff may not only be a moral imperative, but it can also build trust and loyalty and impact your company’s reputation.

Another important factor to consider is how sandwich generation employees can affect your company’s DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) commitments. According to the Carers UK organisation, 59% of non-professional (or unpaid) carers are female, with women providing more hours of care-related work than men across the spectrum. Carers UK’s data collected in 2022 also shows that caregivers from BAME communities are more likely to be worried about their finances (58%) than their white counterparts (37%). On the other side of the sandwich, women are taking on a far greater amount of childcare than men, regardless of their employment status. Research from the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that this can average as high as 41% more. When women and minorities are disproportionately affected by care responsibilities, their career growth can be stunted. In such cases, not only can your company lose out on the skills and talents of these individuals, but your workforce can end up being less diverse and inclusive.

Ways to support employees

Fortunately, there are many ways that you can reduce the strain of caregiving for your employees and create a more equitable working environment. Below, we explore six ideas that can benefit your entire workforce but more significantly, your sandwich generation staff.

1. Flexible working

Flexible working became ubiquitous during the Covid-19 pandemic and many companies offer remote or hybrid working options today. Even if you already offer flexible working, it’s worth exploring how you could expand this, as well as ways to ensure that employees are sufficiently supported while working remotely. Flexible working can also include offering opportunities for reduced hours, non-typical hours or part-time or freelance work.

Read more: Flexible working schedules: benefits and tips

2. Generous leave policies

It’s a good idea to review the types of leaves that your company currently offers and investigate whether they can be expanded. This includes parental leave for all genders, extended sick leave, mental-health leave and bereavement leave. You could also consider introducing carer’s leave as a leave type or offering sabbatical options for long-term employees.

3. Office culture

Building a supportive office culture can be a key way to help your sandwich generation workers, among others. This can include encouraging open communication and vulnerability among all ranks, facilitating discussion groups and creating mentorship opportunities.

Related: Ideas to improve workplace communication in company culture

4. Mental and physical health benefits

You can encourage your employees to support their own physical and mental health by empowering them to do so in the workplace. This could include offering exercise classes as part of the workday or discounts to a local gym, contracting a mental-health professional to offer counselling services and offering workshops on mindfulness, meditation and other stress-management techniques.

5. Sense of community

Employees in care roles typically struggle with work-life balance, which can make it challenging for them to maintain an active social life. This can make it even more important that some of their needs for connection are met at work. Consider how you can foster a greater sense of community among your staff. This could mean regularly hosting social events and networking opportunities or introducing communication platforms that encourage cross-departmental engagement.

6. Financial advice

We’ve looked at how caregiving can impact an employee’s financial standing. It’s a good idea to encourage transparent communication regarding remuneration, bonuses and pensions or insurance policies. You could even engage a financial advisor to offer sessions to employees who would like to learn how to navigate their finances better. Offering private health insurance as a benefit can also be very helpful for employees in this position.

Addressing challenges faced by the sandwich generation in the workplace isn’t just about improving people’s individual circumstances – it’s about creating a workplace culture that understands and supports the diverse needs of all employees. In turn, this can enhance productivity, loyalty and job satisfaction and nurture a more compassionate and resilient team.

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