Consider This: Confronting the intersection of paid work and care work


Employed caregivers’ experiences and unique challenges are often left out of water cooler conversations in the workplace and public discourse more broadly. One in three people in the Canadian workforce is a caregiver who combines paid work with some level of (unpaid) care work, assisting family members and/or friends who have chronic health conditions, disabilities and/or functional limitations. It is likely that you or one of your friends or colleagues identifies with having these dual (and sometimes competing) responsibilities. And yet, family caregiving is often ignored because it is unpaid, undervalued, hidden in the privacy of homes and care facilities and done primarily by women. As a former caregiver, I know firsthand the challenges and tensions of balancing a demanding career at the university while supporting my parents in BC as they grew older.

I started my career at the U of A in 1989 teaching and researching consumer behavior. My focus shifted after a conversation with Dr. Norah Keating (now a U of A professor emeritus) about family caregiving. We discussed a recent government policy strategy that was shifting care of older persons from facility-based residential care (provided mainly by paid care workers) to care “in the community” (provided mainly by family members and friends). Since families’ care work is, of course, “free”, community care is cheaper, but cheaper for whom? (Spoiler alert: to a family economist, it’s certainly not cheaper for family caregivers.) That conversation has underpinned my research program ever since. As a professor in the Department of Human Ecology in the Faculty of ALES and as Co-Director of RAPP (Research on Aging, Policies and Practice), I work towards reconceptualizing and strengthening our understanding of caregiving (i.e., how costs are shared (or shifted) among key stakeholders: governments, employers, and family caregivers), and debating the sustainability of work and care through collaboration, co-creation and knowledge translation with community, not-for-profit and government partners.

An analysis of a 2018 Statistics Canada national survey showed that employed caregivers spend on average two extra work days per week on caregiving responsibilities alone—that’s on top of working at a paid job (often full time). While care tasks like grocery shopping, bill payments, and outdoor work can be scheduled in evenings and weekends, others, like taking someone to health care appointments, helping to dress and bathe, and assisting with medications, cannot. 

While national survey data can provide essential evidence for advocacy and decision-making, it’s not the whole picture (as laid out in an article I co-wrote for The Conversation). Given the significant amount of time that people spend working, I have spent most of my career as a family economist and time use researcher interrogating the intersection between paid work and care work, including as a long time member and chair of Statistics Canada’s advisory committee on social conditions. What these surveys on caregiving and care receiving taught me was the importance of talking openly about the magnitude of family caregiving in Canada and the gendered nature of that care. More specifically, the sometimes dire consequences that caregiving can have on caregivers’ employment (missing days of work, working fewer hours for pay, and leaving the labour force altogether), but also the impacts on caregivers’ health, social relationships and financial well-being. 

Whether talking with Albertans about the realities of aging in place or using evidence to inform advocacy and public policy (such as working with one-time Alberta MLA, now MP Matt Jeneroux, first to bring Compassionate Care Leave to Alberta and then to enhance the federal compassionate care program), my research team and I work to bridge research and use evidence to inform policies and practices to better serve and support caregivers so that they can experience a meaningful difference and a sense of empowerment.

In honour of those who identify as family/friend caregivers (a staggering 8 million in Canada alone), and in recognition of National Caregivers Day (celebrated on April 5), I see you. I know your struggle. Though you may not recognize it, you are not alone in your caregiving journey. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, I encourage you to reach out to Caregivers Alberta and join my roundtable discussion on Balancing Work and Care: Strategies for Meaningful Employment to learn more. 

About Janet

Janet Fast (she/her) is a Professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta. For nearly three decades her research interests have focused on the intersection between paid work and care work. She collaborates extensively with community and government partners to bridge research, policy and practice to make a meaningful difference in the lives of family caregivers.