How to Create a Culture of Care

As many of our colleagues and friends know all too well, the pandemic created a caregiving crisis that is still unresolved for countless families. Three million women left the workforce in the U.S. between March 2020 and 2021. While some have returned, many others remain sidelined because, to state the obvious, they cannot be in two places at once. Caring for children, significant others, friends or elders requires a flexible schedule and time away from work, and too many employers still do not provide either.

Caregiving is the subject of a new initiative by Time’s Up, the nonprofit dedicated to ending gender discrimination in the workplace and the force behind a number of high-profile sexual harassment cases in recent years. The Time’s Up Care Economy Business Council seeks to educate companies on how they can do better — because we have a long way to go. According to the Care Economy Business Council’s latest report, Leaders’ Guide to Creating a Culture of Care, “In one year, women lost 32 years of progress in labor force participation and 22 years of progress in pay equity.”

Solutions need to go beyond piecemeal policy changes. Instead, our country needs “a comprehensive care infrastructure that nurtures our infants and young children, tends to our elder relatives as they age, enables us to care for ourselves when we need time off or are sick, and grants our paid caregiving workforce fair wages and protections that reflect the vital role they play in our economy.”

Where can companies begin to improve their caregiving culture? This report is full of excellent recommendations. Here are a few:

Audit your existing culture.

Track. Most companies don’t even track their employees’ caregiving responsibilities because American culture has always treated these situations as private matters. This leads companies to underestimate just how many of their employees have caregiving responsibilities (after all, most workers receive the message that they should conceal this aspect of their life from coworkers and supervisors — or risk losing prestige or key assignments). So the first step is to respectfully poll employees to find out how many self-identify as caregivers.

Evaluate. Do the employees who identify as caregivers know about and utilize your caregiving policies and benefits? If many do not, can you figure out why? Many workers fear stigma or retaliation for taking advantage of benefits. How can your organization do a better job of encouraging employees to take full advantage of the policies designed to support their caregiving?

Keep the conversation going. People’s situations change. Don’t assume that what an employee told you last year still holds.

Develop policies and practices.

Expand your policies. Leave policies shouldn’t be limited to people in particular life circumstances (such as “maternity leave” that is limited to women who have given birth). Instead, leave offerings should be inclusive of the many kinds of caregiving situations folks find themselves in.

Support transitions. One of the hardest things about taking leave is preparing to go and then returning after having been away. Phased return-to-work programs and mentoring relationships can help an employee ease back into their role.

Consider the whole team. When someone takes leave, their absence impacts their colleagues and that can be a source of conflict and resentment. Make sure that your policies don’t assume others will “pick up the slack.” Arrange for these team members to be sufficiently compensated and supported.

Pay attention. In particular, notice who is coming back after the pandemic and who is not. Many workplaces are at serious risk of once again becoming male-dominated spaces. What policy actions can you take today to ensure as many of your employees as possible can return?

Build accountability.

Model a caregiving culture from the top. Leaders have a lot of power to set the tone. If they set boundaries around their time (using out-of-office messages, staying off email and Slack on evenings and weekends), it will give others permission to do the same. If they feel comfortable, leaders can also share about their own caregiving responsibilities with colleagues to normalize talking about these aspects of our lives. 

Hold managers accountable for supporting caregivers. Caregivers dread the urgent email at 4:45 or the Monday morning deadline that requires Sunday-night work because it pulls them into work when they need to be with their loved one. They want to be a team player but also need their employer to respect their boundaries. Many of those false emergencies can be avoided with better planning. Managers need to see that planning as a requirement.

Intentionally recruit caregivers. Create “returnships” that offer a pathway back to work after leave. Assess the language and images in your job postings to make sure you are sending a welcoming message to caregivers. Formally recognize how caregiving fosters important skills that impact job performance.

Caregiver support is a DEI policy. Women of color are also more likely to be caregivers, so support for caregivers will reinforce your DEI efforts and address specific challenges they face at work. 

No question about it — the Time’s Up Care Economy Business Council is calling for radical change. And that can be intimidating, especially in a traditional law firm environment. But starting with the small changes you can make today will move your organization toward a culture of care and help you support valuable team members.