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The pandemic exposed a critical gap in Corporate America’s support for its employees: the lack of care benefits to help workers meet the needs of their children, their elders, and other family members. Many companies rushed to respond by adding new benefits, greater job flexibility, and other support measures. Now employers they face a new concern. In what’s being called “the great resignation,” millions of workers are leaving companies, and even careers, for new arrangements that support the lifestyles they want.

In this environment, employers facing a competitive labor market are continuing to re-evaluate benefits, especially those related to health and family. According to a recently published Future of Benefits report from Care.com, an online marketplace for caregivers, 63% of employers plan to expand child care benefits, and 41% plan to expand elder care benefits. I talked with Natalie Mayslich, Care.com’s general manager of consumer and enterprise, about this changing dynamic, in which employers are recognizing a larger interest in the care needs of their workers. Excerpts:

What are the most important changes you’ve seen in health and family benefits in the last year?

It's never been more clear than during the pandemic how important and foundational care is in our ability to work. So during the pandemic, I think one of the most interesting things that has happened, and one of the most important, is the rise of the caring enterprise. Because employers have had a firsthand view into the homes, the lives, and the families of their employees, we're now seeing them recognize employees as people, and these people have loved ones and they have responsibilities beyond work.

We saw that sentiment reflected in our research. We’ve also seen that echoed in the exponential growth of our enterprise business. When I think about the good that has come out of the past year, what we've learned is really this: The caring enterprise exists, the need for care benefits is now recognized and continuing to grow and accelerate.

Why should we be talking about senior-care benefits right along with child care? Why do you think senior care is a neglected area for employers?

It is unfortunate that senior care is sometimes a backseat or secondary priority. I think the reality is the pandemic highlighted not just our child care crisis, but also the need for more elder care support. Particularly what we saw happen in nursing homes and adult living homes: The family caregiver who has parents or loved ones in those homes was turning to us to help get them out, to look for alternative options, or to get more information.

Natalie Mayslich, Care.com's general manager of consumer and enterprise (Photo courtesy of Care.com)

There's a growing population of adult children who are being crippled by the needs of their aging loved ones while they're continuing to work. Senior care should 100% be top of mind, and we believe, equivalent to child care benefits–particularly when you think about the growing aging population and the underlying demographic shift that's happening in the U.S. There needs to be more of a commitment to senior care, otherwise companies won't be able to retain their more seasoned employees, and even some of their younger employees who are already in the role of family caregiver.

Many employers instituted “emergency” provisions in the last year. For example, they expanded elder care leave, remote or hybrid work arrangements, and flexible working hours. Do you think these will become permanent? Should they?

Working families had care challenges well before the pandemic and will continue to have care challenges well after the pandemic. That's not changing. What's changed is employer awareness of the care challenges and what they're willing to do about it.

I'm optimistic as we think about coming out of the pandemic and all of the benefits that a caring enterprise has delivered to their employees. The ROI they have reaped will be the permanent rule and not the exception. And fundamentally, because care is so core to what we do, I would expect that the employees are raising their hands and asking for more from their employers in order to continue to be productive as they go to work.

Mental health is getting more attention these days. What is your take on the way employers are responding?  Where are they getting it right and where is the room for improvement?

The pandemic has shone a light on many things, including the need for mental health and wellness, and the pandemic itself has had a pretty significant impact on employees’ mental health and wellness. We're thrilled to see employers playing a role in supporting the mental health of their workers, and our report showed that we positively impacted the outcome of mental health by providing care support.

So I think there's two parts: There's addressing mental health and wellness head-on, and we've partnered with a third party in order to be able to provide that benefit to our enterprises because they've been asking for it. We recognize it as a key core need. Then there's the other care benefits, or adjacent ones, that are actually impacting and causing the stress that is requiring a third-party mental health and wellness service. We need to reduce the stressors.

Three million women have left the workforce in the last year. We don’t have enough time in the day to talk about all the things that should be done about that, but could you talk about a few that you see?

We’ve undone 50 years of progress. In the past nine months, millions of women have had this choice between care for their children or collecting their paycheck, and that is absolutely insane. And when we talk to our employers and we talk to our HR partners, 95% of them say that a big contributing factor to female attrition are care concerns for their children, for their parents. As we think about bringing women back and trying to undo the tremendous attrition that we've seen in the workforce, I don't know how we can have that happen or how we can make meaningful progress there without proper child care benefits in place.

What are programs employers can use to draw women back to work?

Proper child care, 100%. Return-to-work programs are another one we've taken to market to our employers and we will continue to champion. And [there must be] an overall recognition from both sides of the market that it's not just a female problem. Maintaining women in the workforce, and continuing to invest in diversity, equity and inclusion is enterprise-wide and is a problem for all genders and all classes of folks.

I'm hoping to see a lot come out of [President] Biden and our investment in our care infrastructure from a political standpoint. I also am hoping that there's a continued investment in care infrastructure by employers who are looking to continue to grow women's participation in the workforce.

To what degree should a company’s workforce demographics influence how they build care support into their benefits and policies? What are mistakes to be avoided here?

Here's the challenge. Care isn't limited to just new parents, and so it's hard to talk about demographics and the care benefits that are necessary. There's a sandwich generation that's caring for both kids and their aging loved ones, so if you think about limiting care benefits to just new parents, it will be a good start, but will not address the entirety of the workforce.

Ultimately, as we think about care benefits, I'm not sure that the employer should be the one gauging what care benefits are necessary for their employees based on their pure demographics so much as on principle. And based on macro data, you know that your employees will be parents, will have aging loved ones, will have mental health and wellness concerns, will have these care concerns that span beyond just ensuring their child is well cared for.

So as we think about our services, we keep saying: Flexibility of care is key. Flexibility in terms of who you're caring for, the type of care they receive, and also the care questions that you may be asking. I think the mistake would be to be too prescriptive of the type of care [based on] the population you're serving. Instead, offer more flexible options so that your employees can leverage the care they need, when they need it, without having to sort of raise their hand and say “you forgot about me.”

According to Care.com’s Future of Benefits report, 61% of employers are deprioritizing on-site child care in favor of more flexible care benefits. Do you think this shift is simply a result of an increasingly remote or hybrid workforce, or is there a bigger change happening?

I think there are two things going on here. Hybrid work and remote work, which we expect to continue, necessitates something more than just on-site child care. And I think there's a bigger trend here, which is control and flexibility for employees. On-site child care is prescriptive, whereas an option to choose on-site child care, choose an in-home caregiver, or choose something else—the provisioning of care and how, where, and why you receive it–should be in the hands of the employees and not the decision of the employer.

What’s at risk for employers who don’t reconsider their health and family benefits even after the effects of the pandemic wind down?

I think the reality—and we've already seen it start—is that employees will leave jobs that are not supporting them with the care that they need, and perhaps they will leave the workforce altogether. Then we have this perpetual cycle of workforce attrition, struggling to recruit from a smaller labor pool–and the cycle continues. The risks are really high, and employers are starting to realize that.

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this story, Care.com.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.