Changing demographics and an ageing population mean that some 6.5 million people in the UK are caring right now and this number will grow. It is estimated that there will be 9 million carers in the UK by 2037.
A carer provides unpaid support to a relative, partner, friend or neighbour who is ill, frail, disabled. Anyone may become a carer, at any time. Indeed, one problem is that many people do not identify their own caring role because, first and foremost, they are a son, daughter, partner, parent, sibling or friend.
Balancing multiple responsibilities inside and outside the workplace, however, may impose great pressure on the carer, even with support. In the UK, 1 in 6 carers give up work to care. Carers who provide high levels of care are also twice as likely as non-carers to have health problems themselves. Those providing care over a long period are at particular risk of poor health and those caring over 20 hours a week are more than twice as likely to have mental health problems.
Supporting carers in the workforce need not be difficult, disruptive or expensive. Many develop new skills that actually benefit their employers, such as good time management, competence in handling unexpected situations and developing strong empathy and communication skills. Carers are likely to need a range of support, though, at different levels at different times. Small but thoughtful changes, such as access to a telephone or a private space to check on the person they are looking after, can make all the difference both to the carer and to the business. Alternative work patterns and/or other flexible or part-time working practices can also be helpful in addressing the range of individual circumstances. Paid leave (for both emergency and scheduled caring) or a sabbatical may help carers to balance their responsibilities. Such a policy may incidentally also lead to a reduction in general staff turnover and absence, improved productivity and a reduction in staffing costs. In many cases these are temporary arrangements but if caring is judged to be a long-term commitment, it might be necessary to consider a job move, a job share or a period of unpaid care leave.
While childcare responsibilities are for a fairly standard period, with recognised milestones, caring is more complex and unpredictable. The circumstances may occur gradually or as a sudden emergency, the responsibilities may be short or very long term and they may be deeply distressing for all those concerned. Individual support for carers therefore needs to be tailored to fit personal requirements within reasonable work parameters. In larger companies a review may be through a workplace audit or a regular job assessment but in smaller companies a one-to-one discussion may be sufficient. Since April 2007, carers in the UK have had the right to request flexible working, and in June 2014 this right was extended to all employees with 26 weeks service; however evidence suggests that take up of this provision by carers overall is still relatively low. The Equality Act 2010 includes important provisions to extend protection against discrimination and harassment to people who are 'associated with' a disabled person, in effect giving carers rights in the workplace and as recipients of goods, facilities and services. However, again, evidence suggests that awareness of this right is relatively low.
However, it is not only carers who need support. Managers and colleagues also may face challenges in balancing the needs of the carer, the business and the work team. Often the first step is for a company simply to recognise that caring is an issue, particularly as so many carers don't identify themselves as such. If unrecognised and unsupported caring can be a hidden cause of stress, poor performance, absenteeism or early exit. However, communicating information about caring issues within the workplace can help encourage members of staff to recognise themselves as carers and come forward for support. For example, this could include posting information about caring situations and support available on the office notice board or adding a link to the company’s intranet. Beyond this, employers might also consider specific training for line-managers.
By putting appropriate policies and practical arrangements in place, a business can support and retain carers on its staff, with significant practical benefits to the organisation as well as to the individual. Benefits to a business may include:
- Helping to retain existing, experienced staff
- Removing the costs of recruitment and training
- Reducing sick leave and absenteeism
- Increasing morale and productivity
- Improving organisational resilience by preparing future carers too.