They are known as the Corporate Caregivers. They are the ones who come to the aid of a fellow coworker who suddenly falls ill (physically or mentally), who is going through a difficult time, or who returns to work after a bereavement or a complicated family-parenting situation. They are managers, employees, consultants: they find themselves in the middle of a situation, yet cannot turn a blind eye when the person sitting next to them is in pain. They often become caregivers involuntarily, just like the family members of an ailing child or adult.
We sat down with Laura Sinatra, coach, trainer, CEO and founder of Eapitalia World, a consulting firm which promotes the Employee Assistance Programme for employees in times of corporate crisis, to learn more about this increasingly popular figure.
“The name Caregiver Aziendale (Corporate Caregiver)“, she explains, “did not exist before and is a definition that I have found over time, after having met and helped, in many years of experience, many people who have found themselves displaced, unprepared, often lost when they had to deal with a coworker who was suffering, crying in front of the PC, sobbing in the bathroom, or frequently ill”.
Over time, Sinatra noticed that their personal and professional trajectory had one thing in common: “Almost all of them, with varying degrees of involvement, are often left alone, not out of malice or indifference, but out of fear or an inability to deal with sensitive issues. Often for both reasons”.
The example of Roberto, caught unprepared for disease
Sinatra shares the experience of Roberto P., a manager in the financial sector. “Roberto knew that his collaborator Maria had received a rather crushing diagnosis, but he had no more detailed information.
He often saw her struggling. At times he would have liked to talk to her, or to the doctors, to understand what was happening to her and to get advice on how to behave, and support her when she showed signs of tiredness, confusion, vulnerability, fragility. But he couldn’t do it: not only for privacy, but also because he was not convinced that it was a good idea. Until Maria got worse, Roberto tried for a long time, but the results were poor”.
Attempts to be ’empathetic’ elicited backlash; when he promoted group initiatives, it did not go as he wished; when he pushed for challenging projects, he found that morale was low. In practice, continues the expert, for two years Roberto was left alone with his responsibility without knowing how and to what extent to take care of Maria, and without knowing how to coordinate the team, distribute the workload and manage the alternation of moments of pseudo-normality with those of despair or hope.
“Everyone in the company expected Roberto to handle the situation and the people involved. They expected him to be able to take care of Maria. “As boss, however, he had absolutely no idea of what to do“. And perhaps, Sinatra points out, the worst thing was that “he didn’t even know who to ask for help or even what kind of help to expect“.
One becomes a Corporate Caregiver virtually by accident
She adds that “in my professional experience, I can say that often people often become Corporate Caregivers by chance. You may find yourself in a working and relational condition that you could not have really foreseen, for which you do not have a protocol or a procedure to apply such as a fire evacuation plan. You get caught up in the middle and do what you can with the resources you have (personal or corporate if there are any). Essentially, this is improvising“. But you don’t always get it right. And above all, sometimes “fatigue is very hard to bear, emotionally, physically and at work”.
She points out that problems arise because companies hardly ever take preventive steps. “We only realise that we need a systemic approach when we are caught in the middle”. Especially in Italy, “we tend to be a bit fatalistic”. And in fact, she points out, “just like ‘traditional’ caregivers, ‘corporate’ caregivers also struggle in solitude and experience moments of discouragement, demotivation, uncertainty and stress“.
So what can companies do?
“First and foremost, we need to encourage people to give a name to things“, she explains. “At times it might suffice just to be with them, at other times it is necessary to teach them from scratch, because perhaps they lack the habit of talking about painful topics, of probing emotions, moods, body signals, and it is easier to just clam up and hold everything in”.
Most importantly, she clarifies, “no one should be left alone. A robust Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) in this regard is traditionally the most valuable and qualified resource: intervening in critical situations, knowing how to think in a consultative and systemic way together with the company, and being at the helm by accompanying human resources, managers and employees, involving them in initiatives that de-stigmatise illness, mental health and disabilities“.
“These kinds of things come up all the time. Since the pandemic broke out, companies have been asking us to intervene more frequently. It is almost as if dramatic moments of this sort have in some way empowered us to stop hiding our vulnerabilities”.
But not only that, she says. “In fact, it is as if companies are gradually realising that without the contribution, commitment, passion and ethics of Corporate Caregivers, the working environment would be less inclusive, not as strong or as ‘healthy’.
She concludes by saying that “an organisation that neglects those who are vulnerable loses its soul and its values. A work environment that ignores vulnerabilities paradoxically creates others, undermines itself, and ends up creating a toxic and dysfunctional organisation based on avoidance. An organisational environment that avoids moments of crisis is not a psychologically safe environment, and generates additional stress, demotivation, errors and turnover”.