By Lisa Moore
When Ashley Higa, 32, was faced with the difficult reality of caring for her terminally ill father and grandmother two years ago, she struggled to find the balance between her professional and personal life.
For Higa, an executive assistant for the branch president of Sharp Business Systems and a single mother of a 7-year-old son, time management was a major problem.
Her father, who lived an hour away, was receiving treatments at Duke Medical Center, a six-hour round trip commute for them and her grandmother resided seven hours from her in Alabama. Though her three siblings shared with these responsibilities, Higa endured much stress about juggling work and family.
“I remember days where I felt extreme guilt because I just couldn’t ask for another day off of work but wanted to spend as much time with my father as I could,” Higa said. “The option to work remote would have been most helpful. As a single mother, this would have given me more flexibility to take care of my family without the stress of feeling like I was neglecting my career and vice versa.”
For 18 months, Higa’s mother, Becky Keenan, who was divorced from her children’s father, witnessed how emotionally and physically drained her four children became as they rotated weeks of caregiving.
At one point when Higa cried to her mother that she couldn’t take any more time off of work, Keenan said all she could think was, “is this what our society has come to – the inconvenience of a loved one’s death?”
Keenan, 55, founder and president of Network Legal, had helped individuals and families navigate the complicated and emotional issues of end of life planning for the past 25 years, such as will and trust preparation, estate planning, and executor support services.
But Keenan says none of her professional experience prepared her for the role of a working caregiver or a parent of the new generation of young caregivers of divorce.
“There are many things families can do to prepare for their caregiver roles but what is really needed is time,” she said. “Extra hours or days to run errands, drive to doctor appointments, research information, share last days.”
Keenan knew she had the perfect opportunity to help advocate for workforce change through her corporate connections and started WorkFlex Partners, an organization that advocates for and assists with workplace flexibility and work/life balance.
In early 2012 she partnered with Queens University of Charlotte to develop The Workplace Flexibility Forum, a platform for the business community to begin a dialogue on caregiver burnout. The goal is to help stakeholders gain knowledge and develop understanding of the complexities faced by both caregivers and their employers.
On Nov. 15, Queens University and WorkFlex Partners will present “Workplace Flexibility Forum: Caregiver Burnout – Exploring a Critical Issue for the 21st Century Workplace.” The conference will address caregivers in the workplace and explore organizational flexibility practices that can enhance productivity, increase the bottom-line and improve work/life balance.
National speakers will share insights on workforce innovation, workflex as a business strategy, community advancement and sustainability with a tie-in to Charlotte’s energy hub. The faculty and graduate students of The Knight School of Communications at Queens University will address the common communication challenges around caregiving often experienced by employees, employers, co-workers and organizations.
The forum is open to human resource directors and managers, corporate and organizational leaders, employee benefits personnel, and leadership professionals.
According to Keenan, caregiver burnout is costing U.S. companies over 32 billion dollars a year in lost productivity, absenteeism and healthcare costs due to stress-related illnesses. She believes there is no cookie-cutter fix to this growing problem but feels solutions depend on the industry, the culture, and the organization.