2021 Systemwide Caregiving Survey Results

Systemwide Caregiving Survey Results–Preliminary Analysis Release Scheduled for August 2021


In August of 2020, the directors of the Women and Science Program and Women’s and Gender Studies Consortium worked with leaders across the UW System to convene an independent, systemwide task force to advance research on the gendered impacts of COVID-19 on caregivers in higher education and develop ways to sustain and support caregivers across the UW System. Throughout the fall and spring semester, task force members worked closely with many campuses across the UW System to develop communications, implement guidelines, and coordinate resources to support caregivers at all employee classification levels. In addition to defining caregiving as a gender equity issue, the systemwide task force contributed to a broader national conversation underscoring how caregiving is an intersectional issue with varying impacts for people of all identity positions and employee classification levels within higher ed.  The task force also defined caregiving broadly to include a range of scenarios including eldercare, virtual schooling for children of all ages, support for family members and children with disabilities, and mental health concerns.  Ultimately, the task force has focused on determining key issues and concerns of faculty, staff, and student caregivers across UW System, paying particular attention to the impacts on caregivers at the center of multiple marginalized identities as well as impacts of gender equity and COVID-19 on career progression. 

Our mission is to provide resources and collective policy recommendations to campus leadership across the UW System as part of a collaborative process designed to streamline and expedite the support available to caregivers.  Importantly, this emphasis also supports larger, equity-focused work for caregivers and non-caregivers alike, and dovetails with other efforts to combat institutional barriers that adversely impacted the career progression and work-life balance for women, people of color, queer and trans people, disabled people, and others.  Importantly, the survey also exposes larger cultural problems relating to the workloads of teaching staff, academic staff and frontline university employees which warrant deeper explorations. Many of the open-ended responses referenced escalating workloads, varying policies of flexibility across campus, and a general feeling of fatigue pre-dating COVID.  While COVID magnified and exacerbated these issues for caregivers specifically, our analysis and recommendations support the equity focused mission for all groups across the UW System and specifically supports an emphasis on exploring avenues for reducing these barriers in the future. 

Composition of the Task Force 

The task force consists of faculty, instructors, academic staff, and university staff, and students from all thirteen UW System campuses.  The task force also includes administrators and human resource liaisons.  Task force members collaborate with administrators, shared governance groups, student organizations, human resource teams, and other units, although these partnerships vary from campus to campus.   The task force convenes on a monthly basis to share resources, develop recommendations, and engage in strategic planning for future initiatives.  Importantly, all task force members and the research team who assembled this report did so with voluntary labor (often on top of existing caregiving responsibilities and increased workloads).  More institutional support and monetary resources are needed to explore the questions and concerns raised by this preliminary analysis.   

Survey Distribution  

In February of 2021, the caregiving task force worked with administrators and shared governance groups across the UW System to distribute an online survey focused on documenting the impacts of COVID-19 on caregivers across UW System. Our survey included all UW System employee classification levels but did not include students.   Survey distribution occurred from February 2021-April 2021, and formally involved almost all UW System campuses.  In some instances, participants accessed the survey through shared social media posts.  The primary goal of the survey was data collection, both quantitative and qualitative, to assess the professional and mental health impacts of COVID-19 for caregivers and to identify solutions for offsetting the resulting inequities. The data collected was aggregated for all of UW System and will be released to the administrative units on each campus. The survey addressed questions relating to workload, caregiving responsibilities, mental health, and professional advancement. Key variables are also examined by gender, race/ethnicity, caregiving status, and employee type.  These are preliminary, aggregate results and more analyses may be needed to uncover data specific to each campus and/or employee identities, including student caregivers.    

How Can Campuses Use this Data?

While this survey provides a preliminary reading of the career impacts of COVID based on a survey sample across the UW-System, more work is needed on each campus to effectively move forward the recommendations provided by the task force (see below).  Importantly, the data provides a baseline for exploring certain evidence-based approaches to remediating the immediate impacts of COVID but also exposes many questions requiring more comprehensive exploration and institutional research support:

  • How has COVID magnified many of the known institutional barriers facing women, people of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and those of the intersections of multiple identities?
  • What short-term strategies for addressing these concerns (remote work, flexible meeting options, supervisor training, reallocation of resources) should become permanent workplace norms?
  • What separate and distinct approaches are needed to address the concerns of all employee classification levels (academic staff, university employees, instructional academic staff, graduate students, tenure-track and tenured-faculty?)
  • What can we learn from this moment to improve equity, inclusivity, and retention for all groups?
  • How will campus administrations and UWSA track how COVID impacted tenure delays and decisions for faculty and career progression for all other groups?
  • How will campus administrations and UWSA track post-COVID retention rates, paying particular attention to turnover in staff positions and underrepresented groups?  
  • How can campuses take advantage of a shift to virtual work and enhanced digital environments to immediately improve the work-life balance for all employees?
  • What mental health support and resources need enhancements to support employees in future?
  • What leadership changes are needed to effectively address caregiving and other equity issues arising from COVID

Detailed Recommendations: 

  1. ) Maintain policies and practices of flexibility for the 2021-22 academic year.  Many employees will continue to experience disruptions related to COVID throughout the academic year.  Instances of disruption may include:
  • Increased flexibility and remote teaching and work options for those who request it—this includes options for hybrid workdays to manage increased caregiving loads, virtual meetings, and the virtual office hours
  • Clear communication and resources on emergency leave options for caregivers who need to care for someone who is ill and/or provide childcare due to quarantine requirements or COVID-related childcare disruptions
  •   A clear pathway to request a change in work modality that does not require filing an ADA request and includes an appeal process to minimize inconsistency across units and departments
  •   Transparent contingency plans for mitigating risks in labs, classrooms, and other settings if case levels reach more than 5% positivity rate on campus
  •   Clear communication and support for student caregivers who may also require remote and flexible learning options
  •   Clear communication and guidance to students who may be unaware of the lifting of mask mandates, social distancing requirements, and surveillance testing
  •   Review telecommuting policy requests with the purpose of retaining current employees and the long-term work environment reputations of each university in system
  • We recommend that each campus clearly identify and communicate the pathways for faculty and staff to discuss, report or appeal situations they perceive as inequitable or situations when the university’s commitment to supporting caregivers specifically, or diversity, equity and inclusion more broadly, is challenged
  1. ) Increase workplace flexibility as a permanent policy, providing ongoing opportunities for remote work and virtual meetings. Offering multiple options for engaging with university functions will benefit caregivers and non-caregivers alike and will support a culture of accessibility for the differing needs of many employees. This will also become a critical equity and retention issue as staff, in particular, leave UW System for more flexible options. 

 Include options for:

  • Flexible work hours and hybrid work days (5-6 hours in office, 2-3 hours remote
  • Hybrid work weeks
  • Virtual meetings
  • Online teaching modalities and virtual office hours
  • Shared job positions, FTE reductions, and job and/or workload reassignments 
  • Develop models for balancing organizational needs while also fully supporting faculty and staff 
  • Clearly and systematically communicate the policies and exceptions to all employees, chairs/supervisors and other leadership, as well as articulate the support mechanisms that exist for unexpected situations (e.g., emergency switch from in-person or hybrid to online instruction).
  • Support flexible arrangements and online teaching that do not require the use of sick leave, FMLA, ADA, or colleague coverage if the work can, and is desired to, be completed remotely or with flexible hours. This will allow faculty and staff to successfully perform their jobs despite situations that are outside of their control

  3.) Develop System wide policies that actively support multiple forms of  caregiving, broadly defined

  • Adopt a universal policy of paid family leave disaggregated from PTO and sick leave (family leave includes parental leave after a birth, adoption or foster placement, caregiving for another family member and personal medical leave.)
  • Adopt and define clear leave and flexibility policies for all other forms of ongoing and emergency caregiving needs
  • Increase the amount of job-sharing and flexible positions or workload reassignments, allowing more opportunities for employees to flex up or down in hours as needed
  • Identify temporary leave options that do not require staff to exhaust all of their sick leave and/or a plan to support them if they are forced to do so as a direct result of impacts from the pandemic 
  • In all instances, inclusive definitions of family and caregiving should be used
  • In the absence of federal paid family leave, the University of Wisconsin System should advocate for the adoption of an effective and equitable state paid family leave program 

4.) Increase the overall caregiving resources available on each campus 

  • Whenever possible, provide on-site daycare options with priority given to employees who do not have the option for remote or flexible work options
  • Access to childcare should be affordable with a sliding scale and a range of options available (full-time, part-time, drop-in) to ensure services are accessible to students, staff, faculty, and all other employees
  • Provide caregiving subsidies for accredited off-site daycare, after school care, and adult services
  • Increase the amount and accessibility of lactation rooms and family rooms on each campus
  • Offer resources and support for eldercare (estate planning, end of life planning, assisted living facilities)
  • Offer resources and support for caregivers of children (tutoring through the School of Education, summer camps, and after school education)
  • Develop a “float” division for temporary coverage when a unit or department does not have the resources to support planned or emergency leave.  Caregiving leave should not result in increased workloads for other co-workers or an implicit understanding that faculty will still engage in advising and service work while on paid or unpaid leave

5.) Direct and support leaders, supervisors, review committees and other personnel decision-making bodies to review and enhance policies and processes related to annual planning, performance and retention evaluations to reflect the context of the COVID-19 pandemic for the 2021-22 academic year  (e.g., annual reviews, merit, promotion, tenure, post-tenure, renewal of contracts). 

  • Create a plan to review and enhance these policies and processes to address the additional systemic inequities on a regular basis. 
  • Encourage the inclusion of an optional COVID Impact statement for retention and promotion reviews for faculty and staff, regardless of their employee category or rank
  •  Adjust goals and align criteria in performance reviews to fit the pandemic situation, and do so for both faculty and staff, as well as provide guidance for review committees on what questions to consider for personnel reviews and the impact of COVID-19.
  • Faculty: See best practices for documenting the pandemic impacts from UMass, and example narrative guidelines from the System-wide Caregiving Taskforce, Michigan State University, and this example created for UWL
  • Staff: See example from the System-wide Caregiving Taskforce and also information on adjusting performance reviews from the Society for Human Resource Management.

6). Provide training for department chairs and supervisors underscoring ongoing strains of caregiving paying particular attention to single parents, people of color, student caregivers, and others at the intersections of marginalized identities.  

  • Integrate caregiving into EDI trainings, AAO work, and other initiatives focused on diversity and inclusivity
  • Training should include information on the inequities that resulted from COVID-19 (and other systemic inequities) and how they might have affected faculty and staff performance.
  • Include guidance on workplace flexibility–both how to support and manage caregiving considerations and how to manage and support remote and hybrid schedules. 
  • Provide bias training to support supervisors in creating supportive work environments for caregivers with a particular emphasis on providing fair and equitable solutions for all. 
  • Create clearly accessible tools such as webinars, web pages, tip sheets, and training to support these efforts.
  • Supervisors should ensure their employees are aware of work-life balance programs and to support employees who choose to take advantage of such opportunities. 
  • These efforts should overlap with campus wide efforts focused on equity, inclusivity, campus wellness and employee retention.

7.) Create and support innovative ways to assist faculty and staff in regaining some of the lost ground on research due to impacts of the pandemic, including caregiving. 

  • For faculty: Extension of start-up funds, reallocation of campus resources to support research and publishing opportunities interrupted by COVID, credit towards sabbatical, and course releases to support research interruptions. UW-L has successfully modeled this approach by using CARES funding to support course releases and research funding. 
  • Create an “emergency equity fund” which includes support for things like caregiving support, personnel for research, tools and materials for advancing research. See detailed example from Indiana University.
  • Include criteria on COVID-related need into Faculty Research Grants and/or have a year-end emergency round of FRG to support research impacted by the pandemic, with priorities to those whose research was directly affected by changes to the university (e.g., labs closed so research specimens were ruined), who gave time or resources to fighting the pandemic (e.g., gave supplies from lab to hospitals) and who had caregiving, illness or other extenuating circumstances.
  • For staff:  Identify professional development opportunities such as supplemental training, mentoring opportunities, conferences, and workshops to offset missed professional milestones due to COVID. 
  • Actively work with staff on career trajectory planning to develop support mechanisms for career development and growth within and beyond their current position.  
  • Create a COVID-related emergency relief fund, including caregiving relief explicitly, to reimburse faculty and staff who have incurred additional and qualifying expenses related to caregiving, remote learning support, and technology needs directly as a direct result of the pandemic. See examples from other institutions here and also here

8.) Integrate caregiving into campus EDI work and develop a solution for assessing the long-term impacts of career progression for caregivers (annual review of all tenure and evaluation files), and create long-term solutions to retain underrepresented employees differentially impacted by COVID-19 and caregiving responsibilities

  • Distribute campus specific surveys to increase data on underrepresented, historically excluded groups, the impacts of COVID on career performance and trajectory, and the caregiving needs of employees at all classification levels. 
  • Identify past, current and on-going equity outcomes on campus by EDI teams or campus governance groups to explore data and identify pre and post-pandemic equity issues and track over time to see how these change with the pandemic.  Continue the analysis on a bi-annual basis moving forward. 
  • Develop systemwide metrics for assessing the work-life balance and family-friendly environment of each campus.
  • Design mechanisms for tracking tenure decisions and the retention rate of faculty and staff with an emphasis on caregiving as a critical metric for at least the next 3-5 years (this analysis could include turnover patterns, promotions, time in rank, salary, advising and service load, grant funding for caregivers in underrepresented groups).  
  • Develop an ongoing advisory committee to the Chancellor and Provost to address caregiving concerns.  Critically, this committee should represent all employee classifications levels with a particular emphasis on serving the needs of underrepresented groups. 

9.) Use this moment to rethink and expand caring strategies across the University. Each campus could build upon strategies used by peer institutions to develop long-term plans for supporting caregivers in a sustainable fashion.  Importantly, caregiving is inseparable from other axes of social identity such as race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, citizenship status, and disability.  Efforts to reimagine sustainability, support, and flexibility for caregivers is a long overdue initiative which will have ripple effects for many other groups across the UW System.    

***Recommendations 5, 7, and 8 are adapted with permission from the UW-L Caregiving task force which conducted their own two-part survey during the 2020-21 academic year.