Women, Work and Caregiving

Many studies have looked at the role of women and family caregiving. Although not all have addressed gender issues and caregiving specifically, the results are still linked to women generally because they are the majority of informal care providers.

As workforce participation increases, caregiving could pose even greater financial challenges for many women workers, due mostly to lost wages from reduced work hours, time out of the workforce, family leave or early retirement.

This time out of the workforce for caregiving may compound the impact of earlier leave taken to care for a child. Further, caregiving is expensive in and of itself. Whether it’s paying for prescription medications, installing a ramp for a wheelchair-bound care recipient, or purchasing consumable supplies, caregiving has a significant economic impact on a family

While the costs of providing care are high, the demands on caregivers’ time are also substantial.  But women do not abandon their caregiving responsibilities because of employment. Instead, they cope to the best of their abilities with the combined pressures of caring for a loved one, their need for income, reliance on often inadequate public programs and fewer employment-related benefits.

Caregiving places a further strain on the precarious nature of many women’s retirement income, particularly since time out of the workforce does not only have short-term financial consequences. For most women, fewer contributions to pensions, Social Security and other retirement savings vehicles are the result of reduced hours on the job or fewer years in the workforce. Women caregivers are significantly less likely to receive a pension and, when they do, the pension is about half as much as those that men receive and are likely to spend an average of 12 years out of the workforce raising children and caring for an older relative or friend.

Caregiving also has a substantial impact on business. Absenteeism, replacing employees who quit in order to provide care and other caregiving-related activities can have serious financial consequences to employers.

Health Consequences of Women’s Caregiving

The toll that caregiving takes is not just financial. Higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges are common among women who care for an older relative or friend. Studies find that men respond to caregiving responsibilities in a fundamentally different way. Women tend to stay home to provide time-consuming care to one or more ill or disabled friends or family members, while men respond to loved one’s needs for support by delaying retirement, in part to shoulder the financial burden associated with long-term care.The impact of the women’s intensive caregiving can be substantial.

A particularly strong factor in determining the mental health impact of providing care is the amount of care per week that a woman provides. One study found a marked increase in risk among women who provided 36 or more hours per week of care to a spouse. Researchers concluded that there may be a threshold of time involvement beyond which the likelihood of mental health consequences rapidly escalates.

The incidence of symptoms or experiences is not limited to depression. Various studies have identified other common hallmarks of women’s caregiving experience: A higher level of hostility and a greater decline in happiness for caregivers of a family member,  greater increases in symptoms of depression, less “personal mastery” and less self-acceptance and high caregiving-related stress. Other health effects include elevated blood pressure and increased risk of developing hypertension, lower perceived health status, poorer immune function, slower wound healing and an increased risk of mortality.

 Despite the physical and emotional tolls of caregiving and risk factors for disease, women caregivers are less likely to have their own health needs met.

It is clear that caregiving can have negative health effects. It is important to note, however, that although caregiving can exact physical, emotional and financial tolls, it can also be rewarding. Some women caregivers noted that a caregiver “gains”: more purpose in life than their noncaregiving women peers and other beneficial effects include more autonomy, more personal growth and more self-acceptance when caring for friends. Because women’s labor force participation continues to grow, employer-sponsored programs will become an increasingly vital resource for women who both work and provide care to a loved one.


By Rosaline Obah

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