Juggling Act: How to Work While Caregiving and/or Grieving


There’s an endless stream of talk around the subject of work-life balance. Employees want to enjoy their work while not giving themselves over to it entirely, leaving space both mentally and in the actual diary for personal activities.

But what about those struggling with the opposite? Those whose personal lives have become difficult through bereavement or caregiving responsibilities, and for whom just getting through the workday is an achievement. How can we find a balance between working effectively during times of turbulence while also accepting our fragility and finding a way out the other side?

Hopefully this article can in some small way help with that. We will lay out some of the challenges facing caregivers and grieving employees before offering advice for how to handle these difficulties in the workplace.

Working while caregiving

Nearly 75% of employees have caregiving responsibilities outside of work [1]. It is increasingly common and increasingly costly. Estimates say that for 73% of employees, the amount of hours per week given to caregiving tends to be somewhere between twenty and thirty [2]. It is essentially a second job, and one that takes a toll.

“Being a caregiver can lead to both mental and physical fatigue. This can look like anxiety, depression, physical exhaustion, headaches, stomach aches and other physical ailments, social isolation, languishing, loss of interest in hobbies or activities someone once loved, weakened immune system, and can even manifest in self-numbing behaviours,” according to Gina Moffa, LCSW, a grief and trauma therapist, and author of Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss. [3]

That is reflected in the numbers. Ibec recently published research on the impact of caregiving on staff, based on the answers of 1,200 people aged 25-65. Of those who were carers (roughly half), it found that 63% reported caring responsibilities having a negative impact on their mental health, with 57% saying they brought additional financial pressures. 31% said caring impacted on their ability to do their jobs and 38% believed it had affected their careers. [4]

According to RCIC, nearly one third of caregivers who provide support for a family member voluntarily decided to leave their job due to emotional exhaustion [5]. In research conducted by Family Carers Ireland, “Skilled workers were found opting for under employment, reducing working hours, forgoing career opportunities, while others changed roles to gain employment locally or left their job entirely for more flexibility or to better manage their responsibilities.” [6]

Part of the problem is the work culture around caregiving. Looking at the numbers above, provided by a range of sources across different continents, it’s obvious that a huge number of employees are caregivers. And yet, how often do we hear about these duties in the workplace? Rarely. It is taboo. Mainly because in the achievement mindset culture that has developed around work, employees worry that to bring up their external duties –– much less to acknowledge that those duties impact their work life –– would make them seem less committed or less capable than their non-caregiving counterparts.

“Admitting you have a nearly full-time caregiving responsibilities — and you don’t know when those duties will subside — is career suicide,” Katherine Tasheff told Forbes [7]. Her husband had fallen off a ladder and suffered a traumatic brain injury two days after moving into their new home in upstate New York. She continued to commute two hours to New York City for her job even though she worried he shouldn’t be alone in the house. Eventually, like many others, she left her job and found remote work.

Whether Ms Tasheff’s comment is correct can be debated. But there’s no denying that the prevailing feeling amongst workers is that they are in a dog-eat-dog environment and even so much as acknowledging the challenges of the reality they’re living with could count against them. As such, they bottle it up. That emotional repression is no doubt a contributory factor to the mental health statistics noted earlier.

The gender gap

Perhaps unsurprisingly, but still disappointingly, a gender gap persists in those with caring responsibility. The Irish Times reports that 7.7 million women across Europe are effectively excluded from the workforce by caring responsibilities. In Ireland about 80% of those receiving the various carers’ benefit payments are women. [8]

An EBN State of Caregiving report from 2023 suggests the number of male caregivers is rising –– standing at 38% according to their research [9]. But that still shows the discrepancy and impact on women being forced to bear the brunt of such draining and career-impacting responsibilities.

Working while grieving

According to the Independent, Irish companies generally offer 3-5 days of paid bereavement leave, dependent on the employee’s relationship to the person passing. Meanwhile, the Irish Hospice Foundation revealed in a survey that 20% of people said they did not get the support they needed during their most recent bereavement. [10]

Anyone who has experienced loss will be all too aware that 3-5 days is no recovery period. It can take years, a lifetime even, to come to terms with the greatest losses. It is ongoing, and draining. Indeed, the death of a loved one has been recognized as the most significant life stressor that we face as humans. [11]

As Rebecca Soffer, bestselling author of The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience, notes, “There’s no way around it: You will bring your grief to work with you, and some days, it’ll be easier to focus and be productive than others (and that’s completely normal).” [12]

A phenomenon that can serve as a middle ground between caregiving and grieving is that of anticipatory grief. As defined by Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach and leadership keynote speaker, who advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organisations, writing in Harvard Business Review, anticipatory grief is “a distinct type of grief different than the grief we experience after a loss. [It] involves coming to terms with the impending event, learning how to incorporate it into our reality, and planning our good-byes.” [13]

Ms Nawaz acknowledges the brevity of grieving periods ascribed to those in mourning and notes that “there is even less institutional support for anticipatory grief.” [14]

As such, she proposes some solutions for ensuring your work life does not suffer while facing anticipatory grief. Her advice is equally useful for anyone in mourning.

How to ensure your work does not suffer amidst personal difficulties

  1. Prepare your colleagues

As Ms Nawaz advises, “Many people won’t know how to respond when you announce the anticipated death of a loved one. Be explicit about what you’d prefer in your interactions to garner the support you need.”

She advises that you share the situation and how you want it handled with one person you trust and allow them to pass it on. This is preferable to having to announce the news over and over. Some people are open and would rather their colleagues feel comfortable talking to them about it. Others would rather things were kept strictly professional to help keep their mind off it. There is no right way; it’s a personal choice.

  1. Create a plan B

Creating a backup plan for work is helpful. You don’t necessarily know when a bad day will come and you’re in no state to work. In advance of that, have a plan in place. Ask trusted colleagues if they’d be okay to step in for you when such an event happens or advise your boss so that they can distribute the load as they see fit.

  1. Use a second set of eyes

Chances are you won’t be performing at your best during this difficult time. As such, it is a good idea to have a colleague double check your work to ensure it’s at your expected level. Don’t worry about being a burden –– most people will be glad to have a tangible way to support you. It also ensures your performance doesn’t drop off. It’s easy to let our pride get in the way and to want to appear unimpacted by what has gone on personally. But we are all human. There’s nothing shameful about asking for help.

  1. Identify permanent no’s

Ms Nawaz writes about the newfound clarity she had around certain activities. Meetings that she wasn’t needed for but attended all the same and pesky distribution lists suddenly went from things she tolerated to things she realised she didn’t need to. “As you say “no” in the short term,” she writes, “take this clarifying opportunity to say no permanently to low-impact activities that have become unquestioned habits.”

Helping employees/colleagues

The above advice is all for those who are dealing with caregiving duties or grief. But what if the shoe is on the other foot and you are the employer or colleague with an employee or co-worker dealing with personal troubles? Try to be compassionate and think how you would like to be treated. How you act in such moments won’t just impact them in the moment but forever. Get it right, it will be remembered and paid back. Get it wrong, and don’t expect that employee to hang around. It is the hard times that define you as a leader and a friend.

Going back to the Ibec research, only 57% of respondents believed their employer demonstrated flexibility when it came to accommodating caring responsibilities. Only 29% were aware of a company policy regarding the issue. Worse still, just 21% said they had been given paid leave to help them at any point [15]. It is the boss’s duty to ensure their employees are aware of such policies and doing all they can to help them make use of them in times of strife.

If your only thought is business-oriented, research from an MIT study shows that employees who trust their employers are 260% more motivated to work [16]. Trust is not a given, it is earned. This is the time to earn it.

The juggling act

This article has explored the challenges faced by employees juggling caregiving responsibilities or navigating the throes of grief. It’s clear that the current “work-life balance” narrative often fails to acknowledge the realities of these situations.

For employees, the key takeaway is the importance of open communication. Prepare your colleagues for your situation, create backup plans for difficult days, and don’t be afraid to ask for help –– a second set of eyes on a project or a temporary shift in workload can make a world of difference.

The responsibility doesn’t solely lie with employees. Employers have a crucial role to play in fostering a supportive work environment. Implement clear and accessible policies for bereavement leave and caregiving accommodations. Promote a culture of empathy and understanding. Remember, research shows that employees who feel supported are more motivated and productive. By creating a safety net for employees during difficult times, businesses not only do the right thing, they invest in their most valuable asset: their people.

Ultimately, the goal isn’t simply to survive personal hardships while working. It’s about building a workplace ecosystem that allows employees to weather storms without sacrificing their well-being or their careers. By fostering open communication, offering practical support, and prioritising empathy, both employees and employers can emerge stronger on the other side.

More on Delegation

Why You Should Delegate – And How To Do It Effectively

Combatting Decision Fatigue


[1] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/famee.pdf

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/denisebrodey/2024/04/25/73-of-employees-have-a-secret-second-job-its-caregiving/

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jesscording/2023/11/17/how-to-support-caregivers-balancing-work-and-caregiving-duties/

[4] https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/2024/03/05/more-than-60-of-workers-with-caring-responsibilities-report-impact-on-mental-health/

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/denisebrodey/2024/04/25/73-of-employees-have-a-secret-second-job-its-caregiving/

[6] https://www.irishtimes.com/tags/family-carers-ireland/

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/denisebrodey/2024/04/25/73-of-employees-have-a-secret-second-job-its-caregiving/

[8] https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/2024/03/05/more-than-60-of-workers-with-caring-responsibilities-report-impact-on-mental-health/

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/denisebrodey/2024/04/25/73-of-employees-have-a-secret-second-job-its-caregiving/

[10] https://www.cpl.com/blog/2019/04/employer-bereavement-leave-guide#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Independent%2C%20Irish,relationship%20to%20the%20person%20passing.

[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6059863/

[12] https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelmontanez/2024/03/28/how-to-manage-grief-at-work-when-youve-experienced-a-loss/

[13] https://hbr.org/2019/08/how-to-cope-with-anticipatory-grief-at-work

[14] https://hbr.org/2019/08/how-to-cope-with-anticipatory-grief-at-work

[15] https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/2024/03/05/more-than-60-of-workers-with-caring-responsibilities-report-impact-on-mental-health/

[16] https://www.forbes.com/sites/denisebrodey/2024/04/25/73-of-employees-have-a-secret-second-job-its-caregiving/