More than eight million Canadians report having responsibility for the care and well-being of someone with a limiting health condition. 6.1 million of these—35% of employed Canadians—balance careers and caregiving responsibilities at the same time. 

This means that many in the nonprofit sector are pulling down double duty: doing their work and also caring for family members. And, if this doesn’t reflect your lived experience yet, it’s likely it soon will since, as the population ages, the number of Canadians requiring care is also growing.

How do you balance a thriving nonprofit career while caregiving? We talked with people who are managing to do both, as well as those who support people in doing so.

First the bad news

While this issue affects all people, caregiving still falls more to women, with women spending an average of 20 hours or more weekly providing care compared to men who spend less than an hour a week caring for loved ones.

This means that women’s careers are often more affected. According to the 2018 National Institute on Ageing Foundational Report on Caregivers in Canada, “…Women are more likely to feel the financial effects of caregiving, primarily through a loss of income and employment opportunities…Women are also more likely to reduce their work hours or work part time, retire earlier or leave the workforce temporarily to be caregivers.” Further, a 2012 Statistics Canada report found that “10% [of caregivers] turned down or did not attempt to pursue a new job or promotion because of their caregiving responsibilities.”

Moving beyond all-or-nothing

Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching and author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”, says, “Too often, people take an all-or-nothing approach to caregiving and career. Family comes first for most people so they think they need to put everything else on the back burner. But while sometimes that’s the right call for a time, it can become a problem.” Chadnick adds, “Meaning in life is multi-faceted. For many people, their careers provide meaning, fulfillment, social connections and structure, as well as a salary. When we focus only on honouring the needs of those we care for, we lose balance. It’s important to recalibrate goals and aspirations rather than doing away with them altogether.”

That’s exactly what many of those we talked to have done. Nonprofit consultant Rebecca Sutherns of Sage Solutions, who simultaneously faced her mother’s serious cancer diagnosis and an adult child’s complex pregnancy, says, “There were times when I still traveled for work but at other times I made significant sacrifices to my work because it wasn’t a trade-off I was willing to make. I have learned, however, to always buy cancellation insurance when I book anything.”

For Tavia Caplan, executive director of the Banting Research Foundation, her goals had to be recalibrated at the very start of her career when her mother was diagnosed with ALS just as Caplan was finishing grad school. “I always wanted to work in the nonprofit sector but when I saw this role—which is four days a week – I was drawn to it because it gave me flexibility to work remotely when I need to.”

Being consumed by caregiving

But this is easier said than done, primarily because unlike caring for young children, caregiving for adults is unpredictable and sometimes unexpected. Caplan says, “When my mother was first diagnosed, her disease progressed so quickly, and we didn’t think we had much time. It consumed me and I was willing to give up a lot and be together.”

Janet Lymer, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Education Foundation, was working at her dream job in the corporate world when her mother fell very ill in 2009. This began a roller coaster of five years of caregiving, which led Lymer to take a stress leave from her job and eventually to change sectors. “I had a baby monitor in my room for four years to listen for my mother’s needs.”

Liz Rejman, director of fundraising operations for Pathways to Education Canada, who cares for her elderly parents, recalls, “One night I’m joking with my 99-year-old father and the next day he fractures his hip and I’m at the hospital waiting for him to have surgery.”

Sutherns echoes this challenge. “Uncertainty is the hardest part. You don’t know if you’re doing a marathon or a sprint. If you knew, you would pace yourself differently. I try to pace myself for a marathon in terms of my emotional capacity, fatigue, and business. If something is urgent and important, I will drop everything but I’m also choosing not to jeopardize the long-term health of my work.”

Guilt and other feelings

Figuring out what is most important at any time can be challenging, particularly because it’s easy to feel guilty or other uncomfortable feelings about what isn’t getting done. Rejman says, “If I don’t take care of family, I think I’m the bad daughter. I’m putting career in front of being supportive and taking care of family members. Do I do this thing that will better my career or say no because have to focus on something else?”

Sutherns also struggles at times with this balancing act. “I’m constantly doing the math – am I going to disappoint two people or 100? Family is always more important to me than work on a values ladder, but on a day-to-day basis, there are times when work trumps family. I’m always trying to make that decision over and over – what it looked like last week may look different today.”

Consultant Elizabeth Bishop, who works with caregivers, says, “Most of us come with a high degree of empathy and it can be easy to overextend ourselves and be pulled into others’ orbits.” She suggests her clients use their emotions as messengers and dive into tough feelings through journaling and self-reflection to understand what’s behind them. “Guilt says we’ve done something wrong or aren’t doing enough.”

Rejman has done some of this reflective work. She says, “When I think I haven’t visited as much as I could or didn’t buy those shoes for them, I remember that my parents came to Canada after World War II and worked long hours so that I could have a better life. If I’m not fulfilling my own potential, I’m doing a disservice to their work. I don’t abandon my family but when something is significant from a career perspective and there are only so many hours in the day, I remember that my parents worked for me to have this opportunity.”

Similarly, Sutherns says, “I don’t have to justify my choices to others but I have to figure out what’s most important to me because I’m the one who has to live with them.”

Chadnick suggests a slight but significant change in thinking will help: “Our default is to ask ourselves, ‘What should I be doing now?’ Instead, try asking, ‘What can I do?’ That question opens up your brain in a more aspiring way so you can recognize that life has changed and you have competing demands. You think about what you can do, not what you would do if you didn’t have all this caregiving. It’s a question that nurtures positivity and protects resilience.”

Rejman says, “I used to do this badly but now I use the mantra ‘do what you can when you can.’ If I’m taking my mother grocery shopping, I will use the moment to pick up a few things as well.”

To self care and beyond

It’s easy, as Chadnick says, to “fluff off doing things for ourselves” but not doing so often is what makes the difference in being able to thrive personally and professionally. “If we ignore the parts of ourselves that need to be nurtured and go into caregiving, we risk losing ourselves.” Sutherns says, “I’m past the point of thinking that self care is selfish – we all win from me doing that.”

But for Bishop, this goes beyond the “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.” She has developed a Conscious Service approach for caregivers and those in caring professions, in the hopes of shifting paradigm from a belief that service isn’t about sacrificing ourselves and finding our value in the sacrifice, to one that sees service naturally overflowing out of caring for ourselves more deeply and authentically. Bishop rethinks the idea of compassion fatigue, saying, “It isn’t compassion that tires us, but losing sight of being compassionate to ourselves.”

Self-compassion, too, goes beyond a bubble bath and a glass of wine—something Bishop says could be self-abuse—and isn’t simply something for those with privilege and means. It’s also important this isn’t another thing to add to a to-do list but something that replenishes. She recommends having a variety of strategies that include solitary activities (such as meditation, going for a walk, doing something artistic) along with activities that involve others or outside stimulation (eg., books and movies). “Even just taking a moment to tune in to listen to your own thoughts can be powerful.”

It can also mean leaning on a support structure of others, personally and professionally. Sutherns says, “As an only child and my child’s only mother, I can’t share my identity but there are many tasks I can share. I need to ask for what I need to free up my capacity to do what I have to do.” Chadnick also recommends staying connected to your work colleagues if you have to take time off so that you can have a network to support you both professionally.

Send in the clones

One of the biggest challenges for caregivers with careers is having to be in two places at once. This is both a practical consideration and one that requires a willingness to do the work mentioned above. While some caregiving is shared among family members, often it isn’t. Rejman says, “This is where setting up good support services is important. If I have to be out of the country, I set up a backup plan, and a backup to the backup.” Further, while her father resisted moving to long-term care and she had trepidations about it, “The reality is that professionals can make a standard of life better and safer than I can. I advocate for people to take advantage of those support systems.”

Recognize career advantages

While there are many challenges for caregivers working outside the home, many of those we talked with expressed the realization that their caregiving and nonprofit work benefitted from one another. Bishop says, “As those working in nonprofits, we have a better understanding of navigating the system in a way that other caregivers and families don’t have.” Rejman agrees. “I have an understanding of the system and how case loads or government funding work, and I can figure out how to work within those restrictions.”

On the flip side, Rejman sees that caring for her parents has improved her ability to do her work. “I have a much better ability to be in the moment when I’m talking with staff members. I’ve also become super-organized and more patient.”

For Lymer, who left her corporate “dream job” because she needed to balance work with caregiving, “I’m further ahead in my career than I would have been if I’d stayed in the corporate world. People are far more supportive and I’ve developed many skills I never would have learned and been able to take on a leadership role.”

The role of employers

Still, it’s important for caregivers to find a supportive workplace—and for workplaces to recognize the value of supporting staff who are caregiving on the side. Employers are starting to see the growing need to support caregivers as they have supported parents of young children. This is still an emerging area of policy and thinking, though, so caregivers need to keep the lines of communication open and clear with their employers about their needs. One particular challenge is around policies, especially for contract workers who may not have defined bereavement or family care time.

Chadnick says, “Being there for people when they need it most garners more engagement and talent retention than hosting a fun holiday party. A caring and compassionate employer works with employees to find workable solutions whether that’s job sharing, flexible hours, remote work or a reduced load. It’s also expensive to lose talent so the employer gains by finding ways to retain good people.”

While caregiving is almost inevitable, its arrival isn’t something that can be built into quarterly goals. But it is something that, with the right strategies, can be successfully incorporated into an already full career and life. Sutherns says, “We resist and fight it at first but it’s amazing what we can adjust or adapt to.” She adds, “We also can remember not to take ourselves too seriously in all of this, and to remember that the world doesn’t rest on our shoulders.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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