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Providing Paid Leave For Canada's Caregivers Is a Win-Win

02/13/2015 12:24 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

The practice of providing paid leave for employees to take care of a sick family member or friend -- a fairly new social benefit in Canada -- is becoming much more widely available. Upon first glance, that's a good thing for individuals. But if you look a bit deeper, it's actually a good thing for us all.

It seems providing paid leave for "compassionate care" or a "family caregiver" is not just the right thing to do, it is also a smart thing to do. It not only makes sense for patients and caregivers but provides benefits for employers while strengthening our health and social systems.

These are the conclusions of a study released by the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) and the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association (CHPCA) stemming from an extensive consultation with nearly 700 Canadian human resource professionals.

Statistics Canada estimates that roughly 28 per cent of Canadians 15 years or older will have cared for a family or close friend with a serious health problem in the past 12 months. Today, an estimated 8 million family members and friends are providing care for people with long-term health problems.

The CHPCA estimates that these caregivers provide the equivalent of $5 billion in services to Canadian patients. If we were to replace them with paid healthcare workers, the salaries and benefits would be a whopping $25 billion.

The goal of compassionate care is to try and ease the psychological, economic and social burden of caregivers, who already face a tremendous stress. This stress is further compounded by work and other family obligations. One need only speak to someone caring for a loved one to understand the sacrifices they make and the physical and emotional toll they endure.

Not surprisingly, 25 per cent of family caregivers say their employment situation is affected by their caregiver responsibilities. A widely cited 2002 Health Canada research paper found that over 25 per cent of caregivers provided more than 10 hours of care per week and 60 per cent provided care for more than three years.

The Government of Canada first introduced a care giver policy in 2004 with Human Resources and Skills development Canada offering the Compassionate Care Benefit through the Employment Insurance Program. The benefit provides six weeks paid leave plus a further two unpaid weeks to eligible Canadians. The Government expanded the program in 2006 to increase the number of people who can access the benefit, to include a broader range of family members and conjugal relationships. Most provinces also have compassionate leave provisions. In all cases, a medical note is required to process the claim.

The HRPA study shows that 59 per cent of respondent employers have a compassionate care policy. That represents a big change if one notes that in 2002, one of our association members Glaxo Smith Kline was the first private sector company in Canada to institute a compassionate care leave policy. Encouragingly, many respondents without a policy say they will still grant leave under a broader "compassionate" policy grounds if an employee asks for it.

We have seen a notable shift in attitudes to compassionate care with more and more Canadians seeing its value. This is brought on by demographic pressures of an ageing population and need. Healthcare services are shifting away from hospitals, with shorter stays and services increasingly provided in community and homecare settings. Patient preferences for homecare play a strong role. Patient and family groups have done an excellent job in raising awareness about the benefits of compassionate care leave.

There is also a growing recognition that employees are facing greater needs than ever before to care for a loved one. Employers are also finding that the benefits of peace of mind extend not only to the employee but to colleagues and to the employers themselves.

With regards to employers, the HRPA/CHPCA study concludes that:

• 49 per cent say it makes it easier for employees to reintegrate at work;

• 56 per cent say that it increases employee retention; and

• 61 per cent say it increases employee engagement.

The need for compassionate care is only going to grow. Large gaps remain in the availability and terms of compassionate leave. Complicated paperwork and lack of awareness are barriers to access that have been identified. Benefits differ between provinces, big and small business, between public and private sector and between union and non-unionized employees.

One thing is certain: what was once seen as a novel concept is not only now accepted but being embraced by Canadians and increasingly their business and governments. Caregiver policies illustrate the need to better assess the overall value that these types of intervention can contribute to our healthcare system and to our society.

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