Caring for others is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. As we are living longer, providing unpaid care for family or friends with illnesses or disabilities is increasingly a role that many more people are taking on. According to ONS figures (see Living longer: Caring in later working life, 15 March 2019) the gross value added of informal adult care was £59.5 billion. This equates to 4 million adult social care workers. The same report also suggested that nearly 1 in 4 older female workers balance work with informal caring responsibilities (and 1 in 8 older male workers).
As more and more people have to juggle work and caring responsibilities, there are potentially serious implications for businesses.
A high profile report in February 2019 by Carers UK revealed that more than 600 people a day quit work to look after ill, disabled or vulnerable friends and relatives – that’s almost half a million people in the last two years alone. That’s an awfully high number if you ask me, and a lot of experience and talent leaving the UK economy. With public funding for local care services already under enormous pressure, it’s likely that figure will continue to rise over the next few years.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, though. A more flexible, creative and understanding approach from employers could help carers stay in the workplace - and reap significant rewards for businesses.
Here are five tips for supporting employees with caring responsibilities.
1. Be a flexible friend
For employees struggling to fit caring responsibilities around work, the first step is usually a flexible working request to their employer. This is a formal request to alter their working pattern that employees can make (provided they have six months’ service). Common requests include part-time working, condensing their hours into fewer days, earlier or later start and finish times, or working from home.
Employers can refuse a flexible working request if they can demonstrate legitimate reasons for doing so. But there can be significant benefits to taking a more proactive and pragmatic approach to flexible working arrangements, such as job-sharing, double shifts or term-time working. Going the extra mile to help working carers manage their responsibilities is likely to boost morale, strengthen engagement and increase loyalty.
2. Try before you deny
There may be an initial perception that flexible working is not appropriate for that role, that clients, customers or colleagues might think it ‘unprofessional’ and take their business elsewhere or that “it just doesn’t work here.” But such perceptions are often misplaced. If an employee with client relationship responsibilities doesn’t work on a Tuesday, for example, is that client really (or always) going to have a problem with waiting 24 hours for a response? And if they do, how do you manage when the member of staff is ill or on holiday? It’s unlikely that a 24-hour ‘gap’ between their working days will have such an impact on service levels that clients will go elsewhere.
On the contrary, it is possible that service levels may actually rise, because on the days they did work, the employee may not be as distracted, stressed or anxious. They may also be less likely to become another of those 600 people who leave their jobs due to caring commitments, so saving on recruitment and training costs for a replacement.
At the very least, consider giving the flexible working arrangement a trial for, say, 3 months and then monitor how it is working out. The employer might be pleasantly surprised.
3. Take a proactive approach
Supporting employees with caring responsibilities can increase staff retention and engagement, and enhance the business’s brand, while providing valuable support for staff and reducing the risks of more serious consequences in future.
Although making a request for flexible working is a formal process triggered by the employee, a proactive employer might not wait for a formal written request to be made. If you notice that a particular member of the team appears to be struggling and if you know they are trying to juggle work and personal care responsibilities, speak with them about it and proactively offer them support and , even if only for a short period, ask if offering them flexibility in their work pattern might help lose their burden. .
4. Spot the signs
If you have a member of staff who is trying to juggle work and unpaid care responsibilities, it can affect their work and their health (and probably will if the care is a long-term commitment).Carers UK believe that 60% of carers have faced depression because of their caring duties. That’s a sobering statistic isn’t it. Trying to balance work and care duties can also affect their performance in work and lead to a decline in productivity, for example absenteeism, or negative workplace behaviours.
Not only can these issues be challenging and time-consuming to manage, they can easily escalate into more serious matters if not handled appropriately, including long-term sickness absences. An employee who has been medically signed off work through anxiety or stress could, in a serious case, potentially be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 giving rise to additional protection and additional responsibilities for employers which, if not managed correctly, could leave you open to a disruptive, distracting and costly employment tribunal claim.
5. Talk to the experts
Caring for a sick, vulnerable or disabled friend or relative shouldn’t mean the end of an employment relationship. With a little imagination and flexibility, it could mean more productive, committed and rewarding arrangement all round.
Employers don’t need to do this by themselves. There are services that employers can tap into both to enhance their own understanding and processes, and to help support staff with caring responsibilities. Charities like Carers UK, as well as local carers support charities (such as Carers Leeds, based in the city in which I work and of which I am proud to be a trustee)are increasingly working with employers to help provide support for employees with caring responsibilities and to signpost them to additional support that may reduce the burden of care. There may also be opportunities for training and awareness sessions to help line managers understand the challenges carers face and provide a new perspective on how best to support them.
If you’re dealing with some of the issues covered in this article and want more information on your options, please get in touch with us (email@example.com), or contact Carers UK on 0207 378 4999 or, if you are a Leeds-based employer, Carers Leeds on 0113 380 4300.