Lost work due to the demands of caring for aging family members costs U.S. employers $17.1 billion to $33.6 billion per year, according to a new study by MetLife Mature Market Institute, Westport, Conn.

For caregivers providing the most intense levels of care, the cost per employee in terms of lost productivity is $2,441 a year, or a total of $17.1 billion, according to the study, which MMMI did in cooperation with the National Alliance for Caregiving, Bethesda, Md.

The study defines intense care as lasting from 12 to 87 hours a week, including providing essential personal care such as bathing and feeding.

For all employee caregiving, including giving a few hours of care a week to assist with less vital activities such as shopping and meal preparation, the average cost is $2,110 per year, or $33.6 billion annually, MetLife estimates.

Since 1997, when MetLife first did the study, its estimated costs of caregiving increased nationwide by around $4 billion for both levels of care.

“Working caregivers who juggle work and caregiving responsibilities make many workplace adjustments, such as coming in late or leaving early, reducing their work schedules or dropping out of the workforce entirely,” says Sandra Timmermann, director of the MMMI, an information arm of MetLife Inc., New York.

Total estimated losses to businesses include the costs of replacing employees, absences, work interruptions and extra supervisory time.

Employees involved in caregiving often have to come in late, leave early, take time off or even quite working altogether, MMMI points out.

The study authors estimated that each year, 2.8 million men and 4.2 million women working full time are involved in caring for someone over the age of 18.

They further estimated 67,000 men and 101,000 women quit their jobs in any given year to accommodate caregiving demands.

MMMI’s Timmerman points out the finding suggest a number of opportunities for employee benefits brokers and agents.

“This would be way to introduce the idea to employers that many employees are caregivers,” Timmerman says. “It’s a hidden issue many employers don’t think about.”

There also can be an opportunity for producers to help individual employees think about their own aging.

For producers, it’s too late to sell long term care insurance to a person who needs care, but it can be a wakeup call for boomer caregivers to think about their own future, Timmerman says.

“There’s nothing like a caregiving experience to make you more aware of the need personally,” she says. “It opens the door to help caregivers think about own future.”

While LTC can be presented as a way to protect assets, it also could open up a discussion in the workplace of what an employee’s retirement portfolio should look like and how it would generate income through annuities, for example, she points out.

“It’s really important for producers to look at the whole person when planning their retirement,” Timmerman says.

They can also provide extra value to clients by making connections with community resources that can aid caregivers.

“It may not impact sales directly, but we’re all in the relationship business, and anything the producer can do to show he understands clients needs can help build the relationship,” she says.

The producer who knows community resources, such as home care agencies, assisted living facilities, or nursing homes can be a valuable resource to caregivers, she adds.

“Another thing the producer can do is to make alliances with other professionals such as elder law attorneys and geriatric care managers, who help caregivers assess their parent’s situation,” she says. “Anything a producer can do to make life easier for a client during a stressful time is helpful. It establishes a good relationship, even if it may not result in sales immediately.”

Agents and brokers can also make themselves more useful to small business clients by showing them how to cut costs by providing valuable services to employees providing care, even child care, Timmerman notes. She points out employers can offer flexible schedules and telecommuting options at low cost, along with referral services available from benefits vendors that can help employees search out living facilities or find other help.

The study findings show there’s an impact on employers’ bottom lines when employees must provide care for family members, Timmerman notes.

“The flip side is that simple interventions can really avoid some of costs of lost productivity,” she adds.