The Third Shift: Employment, Housework, and Now Informal Healthcare

More than 20 years ago, the seminal work by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild gave voice to many women who found themselves caught in the “second shift”: women who spent long hours employed outside the home but were still expected to complete the family’s housework, too.

While many women continue to struggle with striking the delicate balance between family household responsibilities and paid employment, an additional shift is taken on by many women, too: informal healthcare providers.

With an aging population and a healthcare system that increasingly expects families to provide informal healthcare for ailing loved ones, women continue to deny themselves of leisure time so they can devote themselves to providing informal healthcare. Recipients of informal care are often aging parents/in-laws and children.

But don’t take my word for it. One study by the Commonwealth Fund found women are twice as likely as men to be providing informal healthcare for an ailing family member. Many of these caregivers come from lower-income households, where approximately 40% live in households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. In many cases, the study found, caregivers are not currently working; but when they are, there is a high percentage of job absenteeism.

Two questions emerge. One question is: What does this emergent “third shift” mean to the health of women who serve as informal healthcare providers? The Commonwealth Fund study found caregivers are more likely than non-caregivers to be in fair or poor health. In fact, nearly one-half of caregivers reports having a chronic health condition and one-quarter reports having a disability. Other studies have noted women caregivers are more likely than non-caregivers to suffer from stress and depression.

Something’s gotta give, as there are not enough hours in the day to complete these three shifts. Which leads me to the second question: What’s the solution? Luckily we have the Family and Medical Leave Act, right? Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), women are able to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to attend to the birth or adoption of their child, care for a loved one’s illness, or care for your own illness. Don’t get greedy, though–you can take FMLA only once a year. So if you find yourself in multiple circumstances where you need to take FMLA in the same year, and you’ve run out of leave time, that’s too bad: you’re out of luck. If you find yourself working in a small organization, with fewer than 50 employees, then you’re really out of luck: FMLA doesn’t apply to you. And should you take FMLA, don’t be surprised if you come back to a “similar” job, which is somehow not quite the same as the job you originally had.

That’s the best solution this country has produced. FMLA is our national policy, and has been the case for the past 17 years. Must we continue to devalue the triple shift work performed by many women, especially when we know the consequences? Why is it our national “pro-family” employment policies invariably involve unpaid leave and provide such a small window of time “off” to attend to family matters? Would the US economy really collapse if employers were required to provide paid leave? (Note: Recently, the US economy nearly collapsed, but I don’t think it had anything to do with women.) Similarly, of the industrialized nations, the US is the only country that does not provide paid maternity leave, but let’s save that for another blog…

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  • crowepps

    Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), women are able to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to attend to the birth or adoption of their child, care for a loved one’s illness, or care for your own illness.

    For the majority of the working women in this country, unpaid leave is the equivalent of no leave at all, because the bills keep on coming in and have to be paid. Shoot, 40% of the workers in this country don’t even get paid sick leave for their own SHORT illness, and many go to work when they’re ill because they need that day’s pay.

  • kate-ranieri

    I say, with tongue in cheek, we ask the Focus on the Family to take this initiative as their banner cause.

  • karenjohnson1

    I can really relate to this. I am feeling like a burnt-out caregiver both physically and psychologically caring for an elderly parent over 200 miles away. There are no easy answers to these questions. No doubt we need to attach this initiative to legislation to move supporting families forward. 

  • kgkline

    Thank you for this informative piece. We must be reminded that FMLA provides little to no help for a majority of American women (and men), and FMLA is hardly a solution to eliminating the stress associated with the 3rd shift. The problem is deeply embedded within a culture that values paid work while hardly recognizing (or valuing) work outside the home whether it be in the form of childcare, healthcare, or even one’s own self-care, i.e. exercise and health eating. Too often we define our peers’ success by their contributions to the workplace. To really resolve issues surrounding the increasing stress and burden of the 2nd and 3rd shifts we have to change the culture of business and ultimately the country. It is doubtful this change will occur on its own, thus it is the federal government’s responsibility to promote fair leave laws and paid family medical leave to change the way we think about ‘work’.  The federal government has been very slow to implement such policies or to promote recognition of work in the home. Slowly we see states pushing for paid family leave, so at the present moment our best hope is with our state government. However, America’s leave policies will never be on par with those of some European countries until we change how we think about and define work. This is a huge cultural change that is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

  • drsowole

    America needs to learn how to budget and balance! I agree with the blogger who stated that there is no easy answer because. It is important that this initiative to legislation to move supporting families forward. This brings up another interesting question. Is America doing things backwards or are other countries doing things backwards?