Companies are exploring programs for workers caring for relatives who are terminally ill.
Juggling a caregiving role with a full-time job is daunting. But it can be even more difficult working during the end stages of a loved one's life. Some companies are exploring end-of-life initiatives to help their employees manage the ultimate transition.
Recently, at the global headquarters of Pitney Bowes, a dozen people watch a film while eating lunch in a dimly lit corporate training room. It's a caregivers support group at the Connecticut-based mailing giant.
The movie ends, and conversation ensues. Employee Sondra Durant brings up her experience with her dad.
"He can't remember if he ate breakfast, but he can tell you anything that happened in 1956 -- or any of those years. He's fine with it," Durant says. "You know, it hurts so bad, but we reach out to him."
Pitney Bowes is among several companies now reaching out to employees who are caring for a loved one with a terminal illness. It's offering employee support -- like financial and legal resources, counseling on hospice and palliative care, and flexible working arrangements.
Dr. Brent Pawlecki, the company's medical director, says this is one way to hold onto baby boomers who are approaching retirement.
"If the employer is responsive to the needs of the employee, you're going to have a much more loyal and engaged employee for a longer period of time," Pawlecki says. "And so, it really will help with retainment [and] recruitment, and employers can really become an employer of choice that makes it easier to attract good talent."
A report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 1 in 5 caregivers had to take a leave of absence from work. And during the dying process in those critical months before death, employee productivity becomes dicey at best.
"At times where their concentration may be impaired, they may be distracted with all of these issues they're dealing with," says David Ballard, who heads up the American Psychological Association's Healthy Workplace Program. "Clearly, they may be physically present at work but not working at their full potential."
To help employees, Pitney Bowes launched a pilot program last fall allowing flexible working arrangements. It's been crucial for employee Marianne Fulgenzi. She was given all the tools she needed to work mostly from home while taking care of her elderly mother.
"That has been an absolute lifesaver for me, because it enables me to take my mom to medical appointments, to handle things around the house that need to be done during the day, to watch over the care that she gets," she says. "I can get my work done at any time of the day or night and be very successful."
Fulgenzi joined the caregiver support group. She's used online tutorials for end-of-life legal issues and says she feels supported by her managers.
Pitney Bowes -- along with General Electric, PepsiCo and IBM -- is working with the National Business Group on Health to design an end-of-life toolkit for employers. This kit will help caregivers and employees who have been given a life-limiting diagnosis. Addressing the topic is a business imperative, says Stephen Kiernan, the author of Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System.
"It's not something that employers are going to have the option of dealing with," Kiernan says. "It's a question of if they can respond to it before it gets ahead of them or they begin to lose good employees or have huge costs because employees are out of work, taking care of mom or dad."
Kiernan says companies should talk about end-of-life issues because being humane can align with the bottom line.