As an only child of Indian immigrant parents, health executive and Chief Member Paurvi Bhatt has spent much of her career balancing the demands between work and caregiving. "My caretaker journey began with my father who had early onset Alzheimer's and dementia. He was 58 and I was 28," says Bhatt. "As the only kid, I wanted to make sure that I was available to him."

During every interview for a new job, Bhatt says she would be transparent with hiring managers letting them know that though she's not a parent, her needs for workplace flexibility were just as important. "I would have my cell phone with me and would very openly say, 'Many of you do this because of your kids. There might be a soccer injury or something that happens at school and you have to be ready. For me, it's my dad who might wander. But, it's the same. I have to be just as ready to go.'"

Thankfully, Bhatt says, her career journey has been filled with employers who understood her caregiving demands, providing her with the support needed to excel in her career. But, not all employees have been as lucky. As the only industrialized nation without a federal paid leave policy, many caretakers in the United States, including those who aren't parents, have had to choose between work and family long before the pandemic exacerbated this caregiving crisis.

On average, a woman over 50 who leaves the workplace to care for a parent loses close to $324,000 in wages and benefits over their lifetime. This drop-off in the workplace, Bhatt says, not only impacts an individual's earnings, but the company's pipeline when it comes to advancing diverse talent.

Pandemic's Uneven Impact on Women Caretakers

For Bhatt, the pandemic has forced her to take paid leave for the first time in her career in order to now care for her mother. "My mother is on her fifth spread of cancer," she says. "She also has end stage pulmonary fibrosis, which means she's been on oxygen for the last two and a half years. So when the pandemic hit, her risk was extremely high. And, I'm her greatest risk. If I get sick, she can catch it from me. So everything went into lockdown in a very different way for our house because of that."

With a shortage of home health workers available, and a fear of contracting the virus by bringing someone into her home, Bhatt says taking an extended amount of paid leave was her best option. "There's no way I could be participating in meetings while also trying to figure out what I needed to do for my mom whose second language is English," she says. "There were times when I was close to even saying, 'Maybe I have to quit.'"

Today, 62% of women provide more than 20 hours of weekly unpaid care to a family member, compared to 38% of men. This extra responsibility has forced millions of women to leave the workforce during the pandemic because of an employer's lack of flexibility or paid leave policy. Currently, only four in 10 caregivers report having access to paid leave or mental health coverage, with nearly two in 10 employed caregivers saying they've had to quit their job, and more than four in 10 saying they've had to reduce their hours to part-time in order to care for a loved one, according to a report from the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.

How Business Leaders Can Better Support Caretakers, Including Non-Parents

When thinking about the caregiving crisis and the impact it's having on employees, particularly women, Bhatt says leaders should be mindful to offer support that's equitable for all workers. "I've been very open about being a working daughter, not a working mom," she says. "The workplace is more structured around making sure moms and dads get what they need so that they can leave and come back — and we're still fighting for that with paid leave, but it's [only] around children."

While the need for support for working parents is important, Bhatt says what's equally important is for "leaders to explore different creative ways of looking at benefits" that also allow non-parents to access paid time off.

Additionally, she says, employers need to do a better job at creating an open environment where all employees can freely talk about the type of support they need in order to simultaneously balance their demands at home.

"I will say, you know, it's easier to talk about kids," she says. "Or maybe I feel it's easier because I don't have them. I totally acknowledge that. But, you don't hear people talk as much about [caretaking] because it's hard. It's not met with a lot of joy, and people don't know how to handle grief. So creating an environment where this part of life is part of workplace discussion is important."

For herself, she says, having leaders who expressed how they cared for their own parents, and who showed empathy to her situation, is what helped her to be more open in asking for flexibility at work. "They openly talked about the trade offs that were happening to make it easier for the rest of us," she says. "And, I try to be that leader because those things are all important. We have to change the culture of care and not bifurcate that what we do at work has nothing to do with care. We're caring for our team, and if you're a leader, you should be trying to figure out how to make sure people have the time they need to care for themselves and their family."