‘You can’t cry at the office’: There are ways for employers to help the ‘sandwich generation’ cope with burnout

To mark the 10th anniversary of Tea & Toast, founder and CEO Amy Friesen is introducing a grant for caregivers experiencing burnout. (Supplied)
To mark the 10th anniversary of Tea & Toast, founder and CEO Amy Friesen is introducing a grant for caregivers experiencing burnout. (Supplied)

For most full- and part-time workers, becoming a caregiver for an older relative can throw a major wrench into their personal and professional lives. 

According to Amy Friesen, caregiving on its own can lead to burnout, but the risk is heightened for those in the workforce. Friesen is the founder and CEO of Tea & Toast, an Ottawa-based company that helps seniors and their caregivers find care homes and other support services that fit their needs. 

“Almost all caregivers that call us are either in or riding on the brink of burnout,” she said. “They’re often coming to us in crisis. These caregivers are finding that there are not enough hours in the day to get it all done. A lot of their time is taken up by worry and unknown.”

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For those in the workforce, there’s an added layer of stress. Friesen said many caregivers she’s spoken to will go into work and “do things off the side of their desk,” like searching for long-term or retirement care homes or options for home care. They may also use up their sick days just to keep on top of their work and responsibilities. 

It can be particularly difficult for caregivers of the “sandwich generation,” who are trying to juggle caring for aging loved ones while also raising children, Friesen added. 

“They’re stuck in the middle, pretty much neglecting their own self-care to be there for their loved ones,” said Friesen. “A lot of them say they’re doing this out of love, but we also have an obligation to do that. It’s very difficult.”

Ottawa journalist and philanthropist Sam Laprade, a member of the sandwich generation, knows all about the struggle of striking that balance. 

In 2023, her mother had a bad fall and Laprade took on a caregiving role to help her mom find the resources she needed. 

“It’s definitely this added layer,” she said. “Helping my mom has been daunting. It’s been an honour to do it, but certainly it is daunting to try and make sure we’re connecting with the right people. Overall, that sandwich generation, that’s trying to balance two generations, one on each shoulder. It can weigh you down, and the early days were really difficult.”

In the days after her mother’s fall, Laprade said she didn’t take much time off to manage the added responsibilities that had suddenly landed on her plate. It’s a decision she said she regrets in hindsight. But she said she was often reluctant to ask for help or support at work. 

“I found myself doing my work at midnight … Am I at my best at midnight? Probably not,” she said. “But I didn’t want to let anybody down. I think a lot of people, especially women, are in those caregiver roles and are a little bit shy, maybe, to say I need a deadline extension, so they’re trying to tackle everything at once. You’re trying to be everything for everyone.”

In Canada, there are 5.2 million caregivers, many of whom also work full- or part-time. Meanwhile, the population is aging. Friesen said there are currently approximately 7.5 million seniors across the country. 

According to a report from the University of Alberta, caregivers of all ages are more likely to find it difficult to balance life responsibilities and may face higher levels of job insecurity. 

Challenges navigating the system, which has both private- and public-sector elements, are significant contributors to caregiver burnout. 

Friesen said employers are in a position to provide support to employees and help them address and avoid caregiver burnout. 

“Employee assistance programs are traditionally geared to young families and child support initiatives,” she said. “It’s just now that we’re starting to see a few sprinkles of elder care. We’re trying to bring information and resources to caregivers through their workplace EAP program.”

In addition to making internal policy changes, Laprade said changing the way caregiving is discussed in the workplace is also important. Creating a culture of openness, support and flexibility for those going through challenges can take some of the professional pressure off, helping caregivers let go of their guilt and find balance between their responsibilities. 

Laprade said support from her workplace made all the difference after her father’s death. 

“I remember missing a meeting once, just 100 per cent completely forgot, and the grace I was given was incredible,” she said. “Not every organization is like that. I remember leaving and six months later, I started tearing up a bit in a meeting and being brought into the office and told, you can’t cry at the office. Grief doesn’t choose whether you’re at the office or not and neither does caregiving. It doesn’t really care.”

To mark Tea & Toast’s 10-year anniversary, Friesen is offering assistance directly to caregivers experiencing burnout. The CARES grant — which stands for Caregiver Assistance and Respite, Elder Support — will provide financial support to burnt-out caregivers, allowing them to take some time to focus on themselves and reset. 

“I wanted to make it well-known that there are other options to try to alleviate some of the burnout and teach caregivers to put the self-care piece in,” she said. “If they don’t take care of themselves and put their own oxygen mask on first, they can’t care for their loved ones. That’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

The grant is primarily aimed at those caring for seniors over the age of 65. Friesen said she’ll be considering exceptions. 

“Everybody’s mental health matters,” she said. “I’m trying to support caregivers, but I’m also trying to start the conversation. We talk a lot about burnout, but I’m trying to move this actionable item forward so that we can start addressing it and getting people out of the talking and into the rest and the relaxation and support them in that way.”

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