Growing need for non-paid eldercare continues to largely disrupt the work of women: IWH study

April 8, 2019 (Toronto, Canada)—Despite their growing numbers in the workforce, women continue to bear the greatest responsibility when it comes to the impact of eldercare on work.

According to an Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study published today in The Journals of Gerontology (open access at doi:10.1093/geronb/gbz026), women are much more likely than men to stop working, to work part-time or to take time off work during the week in order to care for an older relative.

For example, in a household where both a man and woman are working, it’s more likely that her work is going to be affected should an ill parent need care with washing, dressing, feeding and getting around, says IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, the lead scientist on this study. And this would be the case even if both were working in similar jobs, earning similar pay. Who is expected to do non-paid caring work remains very gendered.

Women twice as likely to take time off

Smith and his team looked at the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey (LFS) responses from 1997 to 2015 of over 5.8 million working people who were 40 years of age and older. The LFS asks people to choose from a list of options to indicate why they are not currently working when they had worked in the previous year, why they are working part-time and, if they had taken time off work in the previous week, the amount of time they took off and why. One of the options to indicate why in all cases is “caring for an elderly relative (60 years of age or older).”

The research team then looked at these work outcomes attributed to caring for an older relative, comparing trends over time by gender, and taking into account factors that might be associated with eldercare affecting work and with being a man or woman. These factors included the degree of sex-segregation in occupations (i.e. male- versus female-dominated jobs), being the main wage earner, and usual hours of work per week. The researchers also considered other work factors such as job permanency, time in job, unionization and size of workplace.

Taking all of these factors into account, the study found that, when it comes to taking care of older relatives, women compared to men are:

  • 73 per cent more likely to permanently leave work,
  • five times more likely to be working part-time,
  • twice as likely to take time off during a work week, and
  • if they do take time off, likely to take off about 2.5 hours more per week.

Work disruptions due to eldercare increasing

Overall, the percentage of workers who have permanently left work or changed to part-time work to care for an older relative increased over the 19-year period of the study: from 3,300 respondents in 1997 (0.07 per cent of the labour force) to the high in 2012 of just under 15,000 respondents (0.2 per cent of the labour force).

Given the forces at play—the growing population of older adults and increasing longevity—the effects of informal eldercare on labour market participation will very likely continue to increase in the years ahead, says Smith, who holds a research chair in gender, work and health from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Despite the greater participation of women in the labour market, we will likely still see the responsibility for care work falling disproportionately on women.

This has important implications for supervisors, managers, human resources professionals and employers in general with respect to being sensitive to, and responding to, the gendered experience of caregiving, adds Smith.

Organizations can’t change the amount of care needed by workers’ older family members, but their policies around flexibility and autonomy may reduce the impact that caregiving has on workers’ ability to stay in the labour market or on their need to take hours off work and how many, he says. While female workers would benefit most from such policies, progressive workplaces know that all workers benefit when policies make it easier to take time off work to tend to non-work responsibilities, be they related to eldercare work or other personal needs.

About the Institute for Work & Health

IWH is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that aims to protect and improve the health of working people. Recognized as one of the top five occupational health and safety research centres in the world, the Institute provides practical and relevant findings on the prevention of work injury and disability to policy-makers, workers, employers, clinicians, and health, safety and disability management professionals.

Media contacts

Cindy Moser 
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Institute for Work & Health
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cmoser@iwh.on.ca

Uyen Vu
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613-725-0106
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