Graying society nudges firms to support employees caring for aged parents

Kyodo

Japanese companies are stepping up support for employees who care for aged parents at home as the growing burden of care-giving could trigger a drain of skills by forcing veteran workers into early retirement.

Faced with a serious threat of losing skilled experienced workers in the country’s graying society, there are growing moves among businesses to introduce care support programs aimed at helping employees to perform both their jobs and care duties.

Such programs are propping up fatigued employee caregivers like a 52-year-old single woman, who identified herself only as Hiromi.

She has been caring for her parents for five years while working for Nihon Unisys Ltd., a major information technology services company.

Hiromi wakes up around 4:30 each morning so that before leaving for a two-hour commute, she can prepare meals for her parents, both in their 80s. After returning home, she has her hands full again with tasks such as helping her mother, who has dementia, take a bath, as well as household chores.

On some days, it is not until the small hours of the morning that Hiromi goes to sleep, after putting her mother to bed.

Even though the endless stream of care-giving exhausts her to the point of collapse, Hiromi said, “I am thankful for my company’s support for employee caregivers.”

Nihon Unisys has adopted a program that allows employees to take up to 365 days of nursing care leave to care for a family member, compared with the legal minimum of 93 days.

Employees can also accumulate unused paid leave days to be used for nursing care. Hiromi takes advantage of the arrangement to take her parents to a care facility on her paid leave.

However, caring for aged parents poses complex challenges. Whereas child care needs are similar across families, nursing care needs vary widely.

“Nursing care tends to be an invisible problem, as some employees keep silent about their caregiving because they are reluctant to show weakness,” said Kazue Odamura, a group leader at Nihon Unisys’ corporate social responsibility promotion division. “The more senior employees are, the stronger that tendency is.”

Despite such challenges, Nihon Unisys appears to be committed to supporting employee caregivers in an effort to preserve its workforce.

“If middle-aged or older people, most of them in senior positions, are forced to retire to concentrate on care duties, it would have a big impact on our operations,” Odamura said.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications estimates that around 568,000 workers quit or switched jobs over the five years through September 2007 for reasons related to caring for aged parents or sick family members, with nearly 40 percent of the workers in their 50s.

Meanwhile, according to a survey conducted by the Japan Institute of Life Insurance covering 4,000 men and women in 2007, over 30 percent of people in their 50s were caring for aged parents or had experience of doing so.

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. last year expanded its programs for family care leave and staggered working hours, and opened a consultation office staffed by personnel from an outside organization to support employee caregivers. “Given the age structure of our workforce, employee caregivers are certain to increase five years or so from now,” an official of the bank’s personnel division said. “To remove uneasiness, we are acting proactively.”

However, only a minority of workers avail themselves of employer care support programs.

“Companies are at last starting to take action, but most people cannot afford to take nursing care leave, which is unpaid in principle,” said Masatoshi Tsudome, a Ritsumeikan University professor who serves as secretary general of the National Network for Male Carers and Supporters.

“Rather than providing support on the premise of maintaining long working hours, the thing to do is change working arrangements so that employees can perform both their jobs and care duties,” he said.