A third of US workers have left a job due to caregiving responsibilities

Sometimes the balance gets too hard.
Sometimes the balance gets too hard.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Three-quarters of US workers are also caregivers for at least one dependent person, be it a child, an elderly relative, or an ill spouse. It’s no secret that balancing work and care can be taxing: According to a new report from Harvard Business School, 80% of workers say the time and energy their caregiving responsibilities demand affect their performance at work.

As the researchers found, the degree to which caregiving duties shape careers is profound. One in three workers said they’d voluntarily left a job because it was incompatible with their responsibilities at home. More men (38%) than women (27%) reported quitting a job for this reason, and the higher level an employee was, the more likely he or she was to have quit for caregiving conflicts.

The latter makes sense since employees who choose to leave jobs are generally those with more resources to do so, said study co-author Joseph B. Fuller, a management professor at Harvard Business School. As for the fact that relatively fewer women leave high-powered careers for their dependents, this likely reflects how many women opt out of those career tracks from the beginning, he said.

“A lot of women—selecting jobs, in deciding to pursue advancement, in entertaining other offers—go into those positions having steeled themselves [for] tradeoffs,” Fuller said. “It’s more often men who think they’re supposed to have it all than women. They ultimately find there are tradeoffs they didn’t anticipate. Then they say gosh, ‘I’m surprised how hard this is.’”

Given the impact on the workforce, and particularly the effects on the hardest and most expensive employees to replace, it’s striking how blind many US employers are to the degree to which employees’ caregiving responsibilities affect their work. More than half of surveyed US employers told the study authors that they have no idea how many of their workers have caregiving responsibilities at home, and only 24% of US employers surveyed said they’d noticed any impact on employee performance or productivity as a result of childcare, eldercare, or other caregiving needs at home, versus the 80% of employees who said their work had been affected.

It’s possible that some of this discrepancy is the result of highly-motivated workers judging themselves more harshly than their employers do. But Fuller thinks it’s more a result of the maxim attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker, that what gets measured gets managed. If employers aren’t acknowledging the demands their workers face at home, they probably aren’t managing the fallout very effectively.