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Developing a Caring Work Culture For 2020 and Beyond: Challenges and Opportunities for Staffing Higher Education

July 29, 2020

By Clint Davidson, Advisor, LyfLynks, Inc


The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on staffing in the Higher Education industry over the last several months has been both unexpected and significant.  Ponderous lamenting and wishful thinking will only delay answering the critical question:  What must we do going forward?  It is imperative that we get about the business of identifying crucial needs and developing alternatives to address them!  We need to guide and lead our college and universities to effectively strengthen the work culture through expert needs assessments and problem resolution.

What are the Challenges?

The operational challenges for higher education in the face of responding to a global pandemic are wide ranging.  The pandemic’s deadly impact on social interaction with and between students, coworkers, customers, FAMILIES, and the broader population raises a central operational question: “How do we safely and effectively staff (recruit, train, retain and deploy) our College or University?”.  When attempting to answer this question, ancillary questions quickly arise related to productivity, sick leave, cost increases for health care, working from remote locations, technology support requirements, and the list goes on.

Integrating and balancing work and family responsibilities are long-standing and intensifying issues that many employers have not fully recognized or addressed. This lack of focus places more pressure and potential peril on the effective staffing of higher education.  Integrating and balancing work and family responsibilities is a central element in meeting employee needs through establishing a “Caring Work Culture”.   Many, if not most employers would instinctively respond that they already have  a “Caring Work Culture” nurtured over many years through a host of participative programs to involve employees and to provide a range of “employee and family friendly” benefits.  However, the missing link in the context of the participative programs or benefits is recognizing the sheer volume and complexity of employee needs and circumstances that foster their ability to integrate and balance both work and family responsibilities.  The demands on employees have been further exacerbated by COVID-19, and are growing significantly due to an aging population and dramatic increases in the number of dependent children and aging adults with limitations.


While many institutions have implemented numerous workplace initiatives over the years (access to child day care services, various forms of health promotion and wellness, more flexible sick-leave and leaves of absence programs, etc.), most have come without a solid understanding or data-based analysis of the true needs of the workforce, the utilization of various benefits, and the ROI of the benefit.  Moving forward in light of the numerous and profound implications of the global pandemic, we must begin to strategically and effectively strengthen our work culture using meaningful metrics!


Higher Education institutions have provided a wide array of programs and benefit support for parents of school-age children (such as daycare, sick care, and flex time for attending a child’s educational and sporting events). However, they have overlooked the complex needs of the retired “senior” generation and their significant impact on the demands placed on their still-at-work children.   Overlooked by employers, perhaps, but not by employees.   The children of the “over 65”  generation carry with them the responsibilities of making sure  “Mom and Dad” can live safe and enriching lives, wherever that may be.  Even when siblings or spouses share that burden, concerns over matters major and mundane are never far from employees’ minds.  The recent global pandemic has heightened concerns of working children who often can’t gain physical access to parents.

As parents grow older, their children feel an increasing need to “be present” and return the love and nurturing spirit they experienced themselves.   Some adults are fortunate that their parents live nearby and are reasonably self-sufficient.  Many, however, live miles away from their parents – frequently in different time zones and some, across international borders.  To be on target with helping their parents with a range of daily and long-term needs, today’s employees have to overcome obstacles of time, distance, and unfamiliarity with local services – all while managing full-time jobs.  Those in the “sandwich generation” are subject to additional stress as they attempt to balance the needs of their own children with those of their parents plus demanding professional employment!
As dedicated employees with a full plate of professional duties, they have little choice but to try to “fit it” into their busy day.  Because parents’ needs cannot always be handled by a quick email or text, the desire to help one’s parents in a timely and personal way detracts from and often interferes with their ability to focus on their own careers and livelihood.   Feelings of neglect, obligation, and even guilt rob an employee of the time and energy that they would otherwise devote to their duties.  From the employer’s perspective, the result manifests itself in missed deadlines, tardiness and absenteeism, unplanned leaves of absence, and unwanted spill-over effects on subordinates and team members.  


The Employer and Caregiver Landscape

Noted findings from a Harvard University study report titled The Caring Company by Harvard Business School faculty Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman reflect the areas that deserve attention in developing a more supportive and effective culture of caring at our respective institutions.  

The analysis of their seminal survey of 301 employers and 1547 employees resulted in the following conclusions:

  • Employers do not measure thus do not realize the extent to which employees are burdened by caring for family members

  • Employees worry that admitting to caregiving responsibilities penalizes growth

  • Employers do not realize the extent to which caregiving impacts employee performance

  • Employers grossly underestimate the direct and indirect costs of caregiving

  • Employers underestimate the spectrum of care responsibilities affecting different demographics in the organization

  • Employers do not provide the benefits that are valued by employees

This study provides significant proof of the cultural gaps that need addressing to create a Caring Company. 

Figure 7 from this study illustrates that 28% of caregivers (mostly higher income, higher ranked) perceive a direct, negative impact on their careers and experience decreased job satisfaction. The implications of this perception are increased risk of attrition, increased recruiting and training costs and loss of institutional knowledge. 










Figure 7.png

Figure 8 demonstrates disparity between employers and employees in the perceptions of their organizations’ negative attributes regarding caregivers in the workplace: 59% of employees believe caregivers are perceived as being less committed to their careers while only 36% of employers concur. It also illustrates that employees (48%) have a stronger perception than employers (31%) of caregivers’ reluctance to use available support due to perceived negative career impact. Of particular note, is one area where both employees and employers strongly agree or agree: a solid majority of both employees (58%) and employers (54%) agree that the level of caregiving support is unlikely to improve without improved technology and innovation.

Figure 8.png

As shown in Figure 10, the responsibilities of family caregiving have a significant impact on millennials and high income earners in the workplace. Of the 32% of employees who have left a job due to caregiving, half were between the ages of 26 to 35 years and 40% were high earners. Employers who provide meaningful support to their caregivers employees would not only stem the loss of caregivers, but also attract young, high performers to their organizations.

Figure 10.png

Caregiving has a direct and significant impact on productivity that may impact organizational efficiency and effectiveness. 66% of all surveyed employees ages 26 to 35 responded that caregiving impacted their ability to perform their best at work most or all of their time. For managers in this age group, this response rate increased to an astounding 78%. 

Figure 11.png

These exemplar survey responses illustrate that we have enormous cultural challenges to address in order to effectively recruit, train, deploy and retain the productive and committed workforce needed in the years to come.   Without addressing these issues and ensuring a more effective balancing of work and family responsibilities, employers will incur increased financial and reputational expenses in meeting staffing objectives, particularly around productivity and retention.

What is the Solution?

Important research studies have found that these challenges are positively affected when employers create a “caring environment” that includes recognition of the time and effort that employees may need to spend dealing with numerous and complex needs of aging parents.  This “caring environment” can be accomplished through changes in employer policy, increased awareness of caregiving within each organization’s corporate culture, and the introduction of innovation and technology. 

This introduction to creating a “Caring Work Culture” was intended to increase awareness of formidable talent management challenges upon us that will only intensify in the months and years to come.  They deserve and require attention!  Planning for and meeting these challenges need not be overwhelming or cost prohibitive.  Action planning based on data analysis and collaborative engagement with leadership staff and key constituencies will be required.  A framework for Action Steps includes:

  • Read the report “The Caring Company reflecting the survey and analysis of data by Harvard Business School faculty.  Reflect on the findings as they might apply to your institution.

  • Think about how to proceed in planning, communicating and executing an effort at your institution to begin identifying, prioritizing and addressing needs for change.  One of the early and critical efforts is educating and gaining support from key leadership to support your change work.

  • Begin planning and developing a regular “care census” that will provide base line data about your institution.  This assessment effort will begin to identify the magnitude and dimensions of needs.  Your “care census” will likely help identify key findings that reflect unmet needs and priorities by demographics.  Further, key discussion with constituent groups across campus and in the larger community will help inform you as to likely strategic needs and priorities to further strengthen and support diversity and inclusion.  Take care to identify and fully appreciate the diversified needs based on demographic and salary range differences of employee groups.

  • Evaluate the results of your “care census” and undertake collaborative discussions with leadership staff and key constituencies to begin identifying priorities of needs and early planning on how and when to address needs.

  • On priorities identified for change/addressing, start calculating estimated ROI’s based on targeted outcomes such as improved retention, reduced turnover, increased promotion from within, improved productivity, increased work culture commitment, improved recruitment outcomes, and other metrics relevant to your organization.

  • Design, implement and evaluate a pilot program/policy to help assess outcome/support from the campus community and culture impact on the campus community


  • Develop an action plan going forward that supports and evaluates implementation including regular updates of your “care census”.  Provide regular update reports to leadership and the community both within and outside the institution.


  • Embrace innovation and drive the development of improved solutions.  Seek solutions that address both the challenges faced by working caregivers and those that respond to your organization’s need to cultivate a productive caring workforce environment.  


About the Author


Clint Davidson has a storied career in Human Resources.  He served in key leadership roles at The University of Cincinnati Medical Center, The University of Rochester & Strong Memorial Hospital, Vanderbilt University, The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University & Health System.  He also served on the faculty of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poole College of Management of North Carolina State University. 
He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resources from the University of Oklahoma and a Master’s of Business Administration from Vanderbilt.  He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Institute of Educational Management and The University of Michigan’s Labor Relations Institute. 

Currently Clint serves as a board member of LyfLynks, Inc., an organization leading the effort to redefine the family caregiving experience. 

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