Julie Answers: Work stress and being a caregiver — how much is too much?
Alma asked: Should I take a new job I’m interviewing for that is much more responsibility than before? I was laid off last month. I don’t need this new job right now. I have some temp work doing the same as before and with the same pay. I am also a part-time caregiver for my mom with dementia.
I’m glad you reached out, because a decision like the one you are faced with deserves a lot of careful consideration.
A key factor in your question is that you are a part-time caregiver for your mom. Being a caregiver is a huge responsibility. Few people who have not actually done it realize how emotionally taxing it can be. In fact, even some people who have done it don’t give themselves credit for all that they do. In my experience, they might see it as, “I’m just helping take care of my mom,” or “Just doing what needs to be done,” “Doing what any daughter would do,” etc.
It reminds me of a realization one of my clients had about this. She lives with her mom and her grandmother, who has dementia and various health needs. Her mom took primary responsibility for the grandmother, so my client was “just” helping out when needed. This went on for months — she was working full-time, trying to keep up some kind of a social life and friend connections, and navigating the situation at home. I could tell she was getting increasingly stressed, and tried to validate that she had a lot on her plate and it was important to acknowledge that, give herself credit, and have some self-compassion when she had moments of thinking she wasn’t doing enough, feeling guilty that she wasn’t always able to give a full 100% at work, and wasn’t always as patient as she thought she should be with her mom and grandma.
Then one week at our session she shared that she had done some research about caregiving, and it gave her an entirely new view of the situation. She learned the term “secondary caregiver,” and how that was how her role would be defined in helping her mom with her grandma’s care. The article said that even secondary caregivers experience significant stress, are at risk for depression, and might be likely to neglect their own needs — for regular medical care, rest, recreation, etc. It was revelatory to her to learn this — the fact that there was actually a name for the role she’d taken on, and that that role was associated with stress and burnout. The article recommended that both primary and secondary caregivers make their employers aware of their caregiving roles, consider taking time off when needed, and request a flexible schedule if possible. When she told me all this, she concluded, “Now I understand why I’ve been feeling so stressed!” In order to believe that her feelings of overwhelm were valid, it took hearing an objective point of view confirming that the role she was playing had a name, was associated with significant stress, and warranted accommodations to safeguard her own health and well-being.
Her experience helped me to understand the danger of minimizing the family responsibility a person is taking on. When I read your question, my first impulse was to reply that no, you really shouldn’t take the job that would put additional responsibility on your shoulders, especially if you are able to make a comparable income with your temp work. Then I formed some follow-up questions that made me want to reconsider that answer.
Whatever career decision you make right now, the most important thing is that it feels right to you, that you have considered its impact on your well-being, and have not over-estimated what you should be able to do. So if you are thinking, “Wow, this job would be a lot to take on, and the timing is really bad, but maybe I should take it” — because it’s a good opportunity, because career advancement is important, or whatever “should statement” you might apply to the situation — then my advice would be to listen to that voice that’s telling you it could be overwhelming, and not take the job.
However, then I thought about your own personal fulfillment and how much satisfaction you might get from your work, if your professional role is a key part of your identity, if you thrive on the challenges of your job, etc. I realized it was possible that you might be thinking: “I would probably love this job and I wish I could take it, but would that be fair to my mom? Would I have enough time for her?” In that case I would encourage you to look in another direction and evaluate how much help you could potentially get in caring for her.
Bottom line, your most important consideration should be that you not take on too much. If this more demanding job represents an important life goal for you and you truly want to take it, then just please remember that something has to give. Some part of your load of responsibility needs to be subtracted. Simply adding to it might seem workable in the short term as you ramp up your energy and go full-speed ahead, but it will be detrimental in the long term; it is not sustainable. That might mean making arrangements for home health aides or other family members to take over some of your mom’s care — allowing you to spend time with her as her daughter, not as her caregiver.
But if your gut is telling you that you are fine doing temp work right now, that you can support yourself, and that your plate is full enough exactly as it is with your mom’s care and everything else, then by all means give yourself full permission to turn down the job and know you are making the right decision.
Best of luck to you; I hope this has been helpful.