“We are starting to regard people as disposable objects”

Taking care of your mother on her sickbed, supporting your partner in the aftermath of an accident, or helping out your brother who is receiving psychological treatment. A grower number of people are informal caregivers. However, we hardly ever share these stories at work, says Aleid Brouwer, professor (applied sciences) Purposeful Entrepreneurship at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. “This type of care is still taboo.”

One in four Dutch employees will be informal caregiver in 2030, according to calculations of ‘Statistics Netherlands’. This means that nearly every manager will have an informal caregiver in their team. “It is therefore important to be able to have an open and honest conversation about this at work,” says Aleid. “Too often I hear informal caregivers say that they find it difficult to talk to their boss about them providing care for someone. They are afraid that their contracts might not be renewed or that they would be subjected to a negative response. Even though being an informal caregiver is beautiful.” 

Succumbing to pressure

Aleid provides care for her father herself. She notices in practice how nice it is to keep colleagues in the loop regarding her tasks as an informal caregiver. “They are not surprised whenever I arrive a bit later in the morning or go home a bit earlier in the afternoon. Research shows that honesty and understanding are essential to successfully combine work and one’s private life. It is simply because you would otherwise succumb to the pressure of having to perform both at work and in your private life.”

Disposable objects

Stress-related complaints, depression or a burnout; of the 4.4 million people that provide care to someone in their social circle, ten percent are structurally overburdened, concluded the Netherlands Institute for Social Research last year. “That is just crazy,” says Aleid. “We are starting to regard people as disposable objects, while it is of the utmost importance for companies to take good care of their employees. Especially in shrinking regions with a declining number of working people, such as ours.”

Changing the way we think

Managers also need to start thinking differently, Aleid believes. “The first question that often pops up is: how much will this cost me? While, especially as a manager, you should reverse that: what will I gain when I offer full support to my informal caregivers? The answer is obvious. Firstly, an employee who feels well, performs better. Secondly, you prevent someone from having to take extended sick leave. Try and calculate the cost of that.”  

Employee for life

This way of looking at things fits well in the professorship where Aleid advocates for more attention to human value. “Take the Meesterbakkers company in Hallum,” she starts as an example. “When I spoke to one of the team leaders there about informal care, he told me that informal caregivers at his company do not have to work the night shifts if necessary. None of the other employees complain about that. ‘We make sure that we do this for one another’, he answered. That is purposeful entrepreneurship. And in the end, you gain a lot more from it than can be expressed in numbers. Those who take care of an informal caregiver, will have an employee for life.”

Aleid Brouwer is professor (applied sciences) at Purposeful Entrepreneurship at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, and teaches companies, organisations and professionals about a different way of thinking.