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Caring for my Mother Shouldn't Cost Me my Career

06/15/2013 11:32 EDT | Updated 08/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Much attention has been focused over the years on the need for employers to have flexible policies that assist women who want to return to the workplace after taking time off to raise children. The flip-side to that coin is even more daunting: the challenges that face women after they have interrupted established careers to care for an elderly parent or loved one.

I took time away from my professional activities some three years ago after my mother suffered a traumatic brain injury. I had no idea then that my life, and especially my career and income, would face a second trauma.

What I have also discovered is that when you've made a decision to place love over career and compassion over ambition, you are signaling a set of values that just does not fit into most employers' comfort zone. The longer you're away from day to day career responsibilities, the more dimly employers view that interruption. It becomes a downward spiral in no time. The lack of income and the intense 24/7 responsibilities of caregiving can quickly take their toll on a person's energy, self-esteem and health. It's almost impossible to escape the effects of burnout, especially when you're trying to balance full-time caregiving with an active job search. Potential employers are quick to pick up on those signs, and often regard them in a negative light, as I recently discovered during an interview with an all-male panel (the vast majority of interviews I have had have been with male decision-makers) for a position in a government agency.

But the unsympathetic reaction many organizations have to the career recovery efforts of the accidental caregiver seems shortsighted. Successful caregivers have had to learn how to deal with crisis situations calmly and effectively and to separate issues of vital importance from their fleeting impostors. The focus is on what adds value to the beneficiary of the care, not what venerates the caregiver. Let's face it: these leadership skills are not always found in abundance in large organizations. And in an era when loyalty often seems to have the shelf life of an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, there are few stronger and more regularly tested examples of loyalty than that of a caregiver to a family member.

What organization today could not benefit from employees who have acquired -- and demonstrated -- these unique skills on top of those they established earlier in their professional careers? Would the workplace not gain anything by having a few more in its ranks who have become practitioners of the healing virtues of empathy and compassion in their daily interactions with fellow employees, customers and stakeholders? Is it a matter of following the Sheryl Sandberg school of corporate ambition -- or nothing at all?

Even employers in the public sector where I worked for some 25 years -- and where you would expect to find forward-thinking policy in this area -- don't do anything to encourage the returning caregiver or to facilitate that transition. Canada's largest corporations are no better. Perhaps that's another reason why more women are needed on boards of directors; this is the kind of difference we can make in an organization's culture and in its role in society.

My experience is apparently not uncommon. It is mainly women who take on caregiving responsibilities and those who have had active, well-paying professional careers face almost insurmountable obstacles in returning to the workplace. Some studies have placed the financial loss alone incurred by professional women who have interrupted their careers to become caregivers at several hundred thousand dollars.

It seems clear that if society wants the benefit of the reduced health care costs that come from keeping the elderly or those suffering from illness and injury in their homes and out of institutions, it is going to have to show more enlightened thinking toward those who are making these savings possible. That begins with employers adopting flexible policies to provide encouragement and support to those who want to recover their careers, instead of just writing us off. The same employees that added value before can be productive members of the workforce again.

At the very least, there is a need for a much wider discussion about these matters as more and more of us face the tough choices that go with the declining health of our parents. The constructive role that employers can and should play in becoming caregiver/career friendly, and what needs to be done to heighten their awareness and sensitivity, is part of the discussion that needs to take place.

The only choice can't be between consigning a loved one to a likely death in a cold institution or killing off your career. We need champions who will lead society and the workplace in the right direction in providing outcomes that benefit everyone.

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