This CEO thought she understood the reality of caregiving for employees—until she became a caregiver herself

January 26, 2023, 1:46 PM UTC
Cleo CEO Sarahjane Sacchetti will become the family benefits startup's chief business officer.
Courtesy of Cleo

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Lauren Sánchez gives her first interview since pairing up with Jeff Bezos, a company files a lawsuit over state abortion restrictions, and a CEO learns what it means to be a caregiver. Have a thoughtful Thursday.

– CEO to caregiver. Sarahjane Sacchetti has spent three years as the CEO of Cleo, a B2B family benefits platform. So if anyone was primed to understand the impact that caregiving has on an employee, it was an executive who strategizes every day how companies can support staffers navigating that very issue. 

Yet understanding something and experiencing it are two different things. When Sacchetti’s stepfather was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, two-and-a-half years ago, the impact of that diagnosis on her own life came as a shock. 

Sacchetti was the only child in her family who lived near her mother and stepfather in the Bay Area. She moved her parents even closer to her own family and became the keeper of financial, legal, and home care logistics as they navigated the neurodegenerative disease that leads patients to lose the ability to speak, move, and eat.

In October 2022, her family decided that the level of paid help they had at home was no longer enough as her mother’s health began to worsen too. Sacchetti began a leave of absence as Cleo’s CEO that month to coordinate 24/7 home care and devote her full attention to her family. “All my spreadsheets for Cleo turned into spreadsheets for caregiving,” she says. 

Her stepfather died in December at 79 years old. “The decision I made [to take leave] was probably the best I’ve ever made,” she says. “Because you don’t know how long you have with people. But I was there every day.”

As she continued to care for her mother and mourned her stepfather, a California native and veteran who spent his career as a State Farm agent, Sacchetti began to think about her own future. She then made the decision, announced today, to step down as CEO of Cleo and begin a new role as the company’s chief business officer. 

The responsibilities that come with a CEO job—frequent travel, long hours, and the emotional stamina to support her staff—were outside her bandwidth for now. But she wanted and needed to continue working. Once Cleo’s board decided that two executives, chief clinical officer Madhavi Vemireddy and COO Tsion Lencho, would succeed her as co-CEOs, they settled on a chief business officer position for Sacchetti that would be more limited in scope. 

Cleo CEO Sarahjane Sacchetti will become the family benefits startup’s chief business officer.
Courtesy of Cleo

Sacchetti wants to discuss this experience in public because as she made two decisions—first, to take a leave of absence, and then to step down from her CEO job—she saw no examples in public of peers who’d been through something similar. “We kind of go along straight lines in our careers,” she says. “And I’d just never seen it.” She’d had two children, now ages 9 and 6, and taken maternity leave, but taking a leave of absence to care for an ailing parent felt entirely different to her. 

“It’s not understood,” she says. “On maternity leave, you hold up your little joy of a human, and everyone says they’re so cute. But caregiving has all the transition and change, but none of the joy, so people don’t talk about it.” 

It’s an issue employers will need to reckon with more and more as life expectancies increase and members of the sandwich generation care for their parents. Seventy-three percent of the workforce has some form of caregiving responsibility, including parenthood, research has found. Fifteen to 20% of caregivers are in an acute situation like Sacchetti’s, and the majority of caregivers are women. Rather than avoid the topic or leave it to human resources, employers should work to understand the needs of their staff, from entry-level workers to senior executives, and aim to find creative solutions like Cleo did for Sacchetti, she says. 

Sacchetti’s experience has affected how she thinks about Cleo’s work as she returns to the workforce. She’s shared some of her caregiving coordination spreadsheets with Cleo’s product team. 

“Even as the CEO of a caregiving company, I had so much trouble navigating all of that,” she says. “Let’s destigmatize it, let’s talk about it, let’s not have it be shameful that someone has to step aside or step out for a moment.”

Emma Hinchliffe

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