Gender differences in the impact of eldercare on work

In brief

  • Women are much more likely than men to stop working, to work part time and to temporarily take time off work in order to care for an older relative.
  • These differences are seen even after taking into account factors such as marital status, having children, hours of work, pay level, job tenure, and status as main wage earner in the household.
  • The percentage of people in Canada whose work was disrupted because of caring for an older relative increased between 1997 and 2015, and remained highly gendered.

Published: June 2019

Why was this study done?

Often, family members care for older relatives who need help in their daily lives because of a chronic condition or other health issue. Past research has found that people who do this informal (i.e. non-paid) care work are more likely to not be working, to be working part time or to work fewer hours during the week—but we don’t know if this is the reason for, or the result of, their providing this care. As well, little is known about the extent to which gender differences in work participation explain differences in informal care work for men and women. To address these gaps, this study examined male/female differences in the work outcomes associated with caring for an older relative (aged 60 years and over). 

How was the study done?

The study used data from the 1997-2015 Labour Force Survey (LFS), a monthly survey conducted by Statistics Canada with a representative sample of Canada’s labour market. The study looked at the responses of almost 5.9 million people aged 40 years or older, who were not self-employed, and who were either working or had worked in the past year but were not currently working because they were caring for an older relative.

The LFS collected information on personal factors (e.g. gender, age, marital status, children), factors related to the gendered nature of work (e.g. proportion of each sex in respondent’s occupation, usual hours of work) and work factors (e.g. permanent job status, union member). As well, the LFS asked respondents if they had stopped working, moved to part-time work (less than 30 hours per week) or taken time off work in the week prior to the survey in order to care for an older relative.

The researchers compared work outcomes related to caring for an older relative among men and women, taking personal and work factors into account.

What did the researchers find?

Overall, the percentage of people in Canada who were not working, who were working part-time, or who took time off work in the previous week in order to care for an older relative increased from 1997 to 2015. The percentage of workers who permanently changed their work status to care for an older relative went from 0.07 per cent in 1997 to a high of 0.2 per cent in 2012. The average percentage of workers who missed work in any week to care for an older relative increased from 0.04 per cent in 1997 to a high of 0.14 per cent in 2012. The average hours lost from work per week increased from 30,500 hours in 1997 and peaked in 2012 at 174,026 hours. In 2015, 164,060 hours were lost from work per week. This equated to 8.5 million hours lost from work due to informal eldercare among Canadian workers aged 40 and older in 2015.

Looking at work outcomes by gender, informal care work continued to affect women more than men. All things being equal (i.e. taking personal and work factors into account), women, compared to men, were 73 per cent more likely to leave work, five times more likely to work part-time and twice as likely to take time off work due to caring for an elderly relative. When taking time off work during the week to care for an older relative, women took an average of 160 minutes more per week than men.

What are the implications of the study?

It is likely that the effects of caring for older relatives on paid work will continue to increase as Canada’s elderly population continues to grow. Given that the work of women is more likely to be disrupted by providing non-paid eldercare, the findings of this study suggest that employers, supervisors, managers, and human resources professionals need to be sensitive to, and respond to, the gendered experience of caregiving, particularly for female employees.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study benefits from the use of a large and representative sample of Canada’s labour market over a 19-year period. Use of this sample allowed for estimates of trends in informal care work, which can be generalized to the Canadian labour market.

This study may be limited by its inability to accurately represent the complex decision to stop working or work part-time due to caregiving responsibilities. Further, workers with elderly parents may be more likely to point to their caregiving responsibilities to justify their current job status (e.g. not working), regardless of the true initial reason for their current job status, and justifications may differ by gender.