Tag Archives: work-life balance

Helping Sandwich Generation nurses find a work-life balance

By Kari Olson Finnegan, BSN, and Liz Ferron, MSW, LICSW

If you have at least one parent age 65 or older and are raising children or financially supporting a child age 18 or older, you’re part of the Sandwich Generation. Coined in 1981 by social worker Dorothy Miller, the term originally referred to women, generally in their 30s and 40s, who were “sandwiched” between young kids, spouses, employers, and aging parents. While the underlying concept remains the same, over time the definition has expanded to include men and to encompass a larger age range, reflecting the trends of delayed childbearing, grown children moving back home, and elderly parents living longer. The societal phenomenon of the Sandwich Generation increasingly is linked to higher levels of stress and financial uncertainty, as well as such downstream effects as depression and greater health impacts in caregivers.

If you’re a clinician and make your living as a caregiver, the Sandwich Generation may feel like a club you don’t really want to belong to. Perhaps you’ve fantasized about quitting your job, leaving your family behind, and decamping to an exotic South Seas island. Of course, you know you’re unlikely to do that. But you also need to avoid the opposite extreme: trying to avoid thinking about your multiple caregiving roles and just soldiering on, typical of many clincians. The impact of caregiving is real and tangible. It must be taken seriously and approached in a way that protects the caregiver’s physical, mental, and financial well-being.

Physical and mental health effects

In a 2007 “Stress in America” report, the American Psychological Association found that Sandwich Generation mothers ages 35 to 54 felt more stress than any other group as they tried to balance giving care to both growing children and aging parents. Nearly 40% reported extreme levels of stress (compared to 29% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 25% of those older than 55). Women reported higher levels of extreme stress than men and felt they were managing their stress less effectively. This affected their personal relationships; 83% reported that relationships with their spouse, children, and other family members were the leading source of stress. Stress also took a toll on their own well-being as they struggled to take better care of themselves.

Another study focusing exclusively on health-related issues found employed family caregivers had significantly higher rates of diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease across all ages and both genders. Depression was one-third more prevalent in family caregivers than non-caregivers, and stress in general and at home was higher across all age and gender cohorts. (See A perfect storm for the Sandwich Generation.)

Reaching out for help

No doubt, some of you reading this article are living the Sandwich Generation experience. As a clinician, you may find it hard to reach out for help and support. But that’s the most important first step—acknowledging that not only is it okay to ask for help, but it’s critically important. Asking for help may reduce the stress associated with fulfilling your responsibilities at home and at work. Clinicians talk a lot about the importance of a work-life balance; such a balance is essential to coping effectively with the many demands faced by clinicians, especially those of the Sandwich Generation.

What does it really mean to balance work and life? In our practice, we see clinicians come to us for help when they feel overwhelmed; many have multiple presenting issues. As we work with them, we learn these issues sometimes are linked. For instance, financial stress can lead to family or relationship strains. Stress, anxiety, and depression can result from juggling too many home and work demands. Being responsible for dependent children or supporting an out-of-work spouse or partner can be daunting. The additional support that grown children and aging parents require can push even the most resilient clinicians past their tipping point.

For some of you, employers may have resources and programs that can help. Providing more flexible scheduling can help employees better handle family responsibilities. Speak to your supervisor to see if together you can devise a plan that allows you to take time off for such things as school events or doctor’s appointments while still meeting your organization’s staffing needs. Some employers offer eldercare benefits, which can help with planning and identifying resources.

It’s also helpful to learn from others. Speak to your human resources department about forming and promoting a lunchtime or after-work support group for “sandwiched” employees to share experiences and resources—and providing the space where the group can meet. Most larger healthcare organizations offer an employee assistance program (EAP), which can provide valuable counseling and support for:

• coping skills and resilience-building
• prioritizing and time management
• setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries
• finding resources to assist with caregiving
• eldercare-related education and resources on financial and life planning for parents
• financial and budget planning to manage your money wisely while planning for your retirement, your children’s college expenses, and other needs.

Some EAPS provide RN peer coaches and master’s-prepared counselors to help employees deal with stressors both inside and outside of work.


The following guidelines can help Sandwich Generation clinicians (or anyone, really) take care of themselves.

Watch for depression. Studies show family caregivers are at higher risk for depression, which may creep up on you. If you or your spouse or partner has access to an EAP, ask those counselors for help with this. Otherwise, if you’re experiencing signs or symptoms of depression, speak to your primary care physician for a more complete screening and assistance or a referral to a therapist or psychologist.
Put yourself in the “balance” equation. Be intentional about setting aside time for yourself. If you wait until you have free time, you may well be waiting until retirement, leaving you susceptible to burnout. Set aside regular time for self-care, such as by taking a yoga or exercise class or scheduling time to jog with a friend.
Set boundaries. This ensures you have time to take care of yourself as well as other important things. Be honest about what’s absolutely necessary—and where there’s room for compromise or saying no. Being at your child’s school play? Not negotiable. Baking cookies for the party afterward? No one is likely to remember 15 minutes after the party ends.
Ask for help. People ask you for help all the time; ask them to return the favor. They can always say no, but most won’t—and may be delighted to lend
a hand.
Hold family meetings. This is important—to set expectations and boundaries, get help, and enlist others to share some of the responsibilities. Even young children and frail elders can be part of the solution, but you have to let them understand the needs and give them a chance to meet them.
Find and use a financial planner. You can relieve a lot of stress not only by helping yourself and your parents protect your future and manage the present but also by setting reasonable boundaries and conditions around financial support for grown children
and elders.

For tips on caring for yourself and to learn how to switch on and off to transition from home to work, download and use the Helper Pocket Card.

Eldercare can be especially challenging—but many sources of help are available. A good place to start is with the Elder­care Locator, a federally funded service that connects caregivers with local resources (available online at www.eldercare.gov/Eldercare.NET/Public/Index.aspx or by phone: 1-800-677-1116). Every county or multicounty area in the United States has an Area Agency on Aging that receives federal funding to provide information and referral to family caregivers on aging and caregiving services, such as adult day care, respite care, home repair and modification, personal care, and more.

Selected references

Coughlin J. Estimating the impact of caregiving and employment on well-being. Outcomes Insights Health Manag. 2010;2(1):40185. www.pascenter
. Accessed May 18, 2014.

MetLife Mature Market Institute. The MetLife study of working caregivers and employer health care costs: new insights and innovations for reducing health care costs for employers. June 2011. www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/
. Accessed May 25, 2014.

MetLife Mature Market Institute, National Alliance for Caregiving, and University of Pittsburgh Institute on Aging. The MetLife study of working caregivers and employer health care costs: double jeopardy for baby boomers caring for their parents. February 2010. www.metlife.com/assets/cao/mmi/publications/
Accessed May 25, 2014.

Parker K, Patten E. The sandwich generation: rising financial burdens for middle-aged Americans. Pew Research Center. January 30, 2013. www.pewsocial
. Accessed May 24, 2014.

Sandwich generation moms feeling the squeeze. APA Psychology Help Center. May 2008. www.apa.org/helpcenter/sandwich-generation.aspx. Accessed May 18, 2014.

Kari Olson Finnegan is the director of Employee Occupational Health & Safety at Park Nicollet in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Liz Ferron is vice president of Clinical Services at Midwest EAP Solutions, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

DISCLAIMER: All clinical recommendations are intended to assist with determining the appropriate wound therapy for the patient. Responsibility for final decisions and actions related to care of specific patients shall remain the obligation of the institution, its staff, and the patients’ attending physicians. Nothing in this information shall be deemed to constitute the providing of medical care or the diagnosis of any medical condition. Individuals should contact their healthcare providers for medical-related information.

Achieving a work-life balance

By Julie Boertje, MS, RN, LMFT, QMRP, and Liz Ferron, MSW, LICSW

Almost everyone agrees that achieving a work-life balance is a good thing. Without it, we risk long-term negative effects on our physical and mental health, our relationships, and our work performance. But many clinicians have a hard time achieving this balance due to job demands, erratic work schedules, or the inability to say no when someone asks for help.

The challenges of stress and burnout

Stress and job burnout can cause, contribute to, or result from a poor work-life balance. They disrupt our normal patterns, behaviors, and feelings.

Of course, no one can escape stress altogether. Sometimes stress is a good thing, but we need to be able to identify when it’s a problem. For many clinicians, stress springs from the desire to provide good service and care in all parts of their lives. This desire can create stress, especially when barriers exist to achieving it.

Barriers to balancing work and life

Some barriers are external and outside one’s control. These may include everything from inadequate staffing levels to changes in practice expectations due to healthcare reform. Generational differences among healthcare providers also may pose an external barrier. Clinicians from different generations have different training, expectations, and skill sets. This can lead to new paradigms, changes, conflict, and other challenges.

Other stressors are more personal and internal—and within one’s control. Most clinicians try to stay hopeful and promote realistic hope in their patients, but this can be exhausting. What’s more, time, age, and life stage can change a person, altering his or her goals, priorities, and perhaps bedside manner. This can create a gap between the goal of on-the-job perfection and the realities of daily life. Guilt and frustration can result.

How to help yourself

First, come to terms with some fundamentals. Acceptance is a good starting point for combating stress. Start by acknowledging the things you can’t change. Then develop better coping strategies so you can address your feelings about these things and help remove them as barriers to finding a work-life balance.

  • Embrace your perfectionism, but be alert to when it’s tormenting you or others. When it comes to patient safety, perfection is a necessity. But because we’re human, we sometimes make mistakes. We need to be able to learn from them and move on, or the result can be crippling. When patient safety isn’t at risk, try to do the best you can; you simply don’t have the time to dwell on entering information in a chart perfectly. Give it a once-over to make sure it’s accurate, then move on.
  • Develop empathy for others, rather than judging them. Judging others and finding they don’t meet your expectations adds unnecessary stress. Instead, ask questions and seek to understand their point of view.
  • Take a “time out” when possible if things get overwhelming. Do some deep breathing or brief meditation. This helps ground you so you’re better able to focus, concentrate, and stay calm.

Moving toward a better balance

Once you’ve set ground rules for yourself, achieving a better work-life balance can help clear away other stressors. Don’t take shortcuts here: Either you make work-life balance a priority or you don’t. If you decide to make it a priority, recognize you don’t need to change everything at once. Just making a few changes can lead to better-than-expected results.

More effective time management

For most clinicians, practicing better time management is a challenge because we have so many demands we may perceive as conflicting. Here are ways to manage your time more effectively:

  • Sit down with your spouse or partner to discuss and negotiate relationship expectations.
  • Align your priorities and values between home and work.
  • Look for areas where you should set limits and boundaries on your time—both at home and at work—and stick to them.
  • Set limits with patients while still conveying empathy and instilling their confidence in your care.
  • Seek mentors who model good time management, and ask for their advice and guidance.
  • Work on self-acceptance for the person you are today. Acknowledge that you’re doing your best, and keep boundaries by trusting and allowing others to do their job.

Stronger relationships

Relationship problems can be a great drain on your time and emotional energy. Here are some ways to strengthen your relationships both at work and at home.

  • Engage in necessary conversations regarding conflict. Addressing conflict and moving beyond it can make an enormous difference in your feelings and perceptions.
  • Set regular times to get together with family and friends, and stick to those plans. Find time for regularly scheduled family meetings and meals together. Everyone may have to give a little to make this happen, but it will be worth it.
  • Give people the benefit of a doubt and avoid jumping to conclusions. Work on identifying obstacles to trust.
  • Be open to reasonable feedback.
  • Ask for help and delegate responsibilities and duties when possible.

Better self-care

Make yourself a priority by practicing good self-care. To build “down” time into your schedule, take restorative breaks throughout the day. Enroll in a yoga, Pilates, or mindfulness meditation class or other activity that helps reduce stress. Read fiction, write in a journal, or meditate.

Take time to reflect on the positive parts of your day and life. Doing this before bedtime can promote a good night’s sleep. Speaking of sleep, make it a priority. If you can’t get a full night’s sleep, take short naps.

Identify more ways to integrate exercise into your day. Exercise is the cheapest antidepressant around. Go for a 10-minute walk outside the clinic or hospital. Purchase exercise equipment for your home, or use onsite facilities if they’re available. Get a partner for workouts, running, or other activities.

Improve your nutrition by sitting down to breakfast, taking a break for lunch, bringing healthy snacks to work, and being there for family dinners.

Take care of yourself mentally and emotionally. Acknowledge losses and give yourself permission to grieve.

Identify workplace and personal challenges that create stress, and develop an action plan for addressing or coping with them. Set realistic goals for stress management and update them as needed, either alone or with a coach, therapist, friend, or partner.

One step at a time

Perhaps you agree with our advice, but think your life is too overwhelming and demanding to put our recommendations into practice. If so, keep in mind that just wishing and hoping things will get better won’t make it happen. You may end up wishing and hoping for the rest of your life.

So take it one small step at a time. Never underestimate the power of small changes. Start by making one small change that takes just a few minutes. After the first week, evaluate the results of this change. You may find they’re good enough to inspire you to make further changes.

Finally, don’t go it alone. Look for and request support in areas that seem the most challenging. Consider your organization’s employee assistance program (EAP), a life coach, a peer coach, family or marital counseling, and individual counseling. The investment you make in yourself will help you become a better clinician, increase your satisfaction, and have a positive effect that carries over into all areas of your life.

The authors work at Midwest EAP Solutions in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Julie Boertje is a nurse peer coach. Liz Ferron is a senior EAP consultant.

DISCLAIMER: All clinical recommendations are intended to assist with determining the appropriate wound therapy for the patient. Responsibility for final decisions and actions related to care of specific patients shall remain the obligation of the institution, its staff, and the patients’ attending physicians. Nothing in this information shall be deemed to constitute the providing of medical care or the diagnosis of any medical condition. Individuals should contact their healthcare providers for medical-related information.