by Rachel Suff, CIPD Adviser, Employment Relations
The number of people aged between 50-64 carrying out unpaid care for elderly parents or spouses is expected to double in the next 30 years in England and Wales. This huge shift in the level of caring responsibility that many of us will assume now and in the future is the result of several factors.
First, the population is ageing, with recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that one-third of babies born in 2013 are now expected to live to 100. Increased life expectancy is to be celebrated but it does carry with it a higher risk of disability and chronic illness. Second, the UK does not have a strong formal care framework which means that much of the burden for eldercare will fall increasingly on people in the 50-plus age group. According to 2011 Census data, there are now approximately 6.5 million people providing unpaid care in the UK. UK-based group Employers for carers reports that one in nine of your workforce is caring for someone who is older, disabled or seriously ill. Compare this situation to Denmark where, in one recent survey, less than 1% of people needing care rely on family members to provide it; this is because Denmark has strong formal care provision.
A juggling act for some
The UK’s strong reliance on informal care provided by children and relatives means that many people are juggling work and eldercare responsibilities. A significant proportion – the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ may be coping with caring for young children and elderly or ill parents or partners. This has clear implications for older workers’ ability to remain in work. 26 per cent of carers of working age feel that their caring responsibilities have affected their ability to take up or stay in employment, according to results from the 2009-10 Survey of carers in households.
There is an increasing recognition that employers and the economy cannot afford to lose working carers, notably those in the group aged 40- and 50-plus, who face the greatest care demands, but are also key to the labour force due to their experience. As a result, efforts to support carers who want to remain in work have gained urgency and are increasingly subject of public debate in the UK. The Government recently argued that ‘supporting people to combine work and care has become an economic as well as a social imperative’ (HM Government, 2012). In 2012, the Government established the Carers in Employment Task and Finish Group to explore ways of supporting carers in combining work and care.
A framework of basic rights
The UK has a range of important employment rights and benefits to support working carers, including older carers. These include the right to unpaid ‘time off for dependents’, reasonable time off work to deal with emergencies affecting individuals they care for who live in the same household or are reliant on them. This allows working carers to deal with disruptions in care, make arrangements for long-term care when the need suddenly arises, and to respond when the dependents fall ill. It is at employers’ discretion whether such time off is paid or not. Like other employees, carers have the right to request flexible working – including adjustments like part-time work, flexi-time, home working and compressed hours. The Government also provides a number of benefits for working-age carers.
Supporting carers in the workplace
Recognition of the demands that many employees with caring responsibilities face is growing, but many employers have still not adequately addressed the issue. In our 2014 survey with Simplyhealth, one in three employers reported that absence levels had increased due to their staff struggling to cope with their caring responsibilities outside of work but just one employer in six had in place tailored policies to support people with caring responsibilities.
Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees including those with eldercare responsibilities is an important step forward in supporting working carers, and has the potential to make a big difference to many people trying to balance work and eldercare responsibilities. But caring for an elderly or ill person can be place challenging and unexpected demands on people and does not often fall into a regular routine. This means that many organisations will need to think more creatively about the kind of flexible working that staff in this position may need. Similarly, taking time off to deal with emergencies is a valuable provision for employees trying to deal with a crisis in their caring responsibilities but it is not intended to be a provision that can be used on a regular basis.
Besides offering flexible working, employers can support older workers who have care responsibilities by providing additional paid or unpaid leave or even longer career breaks for carers who need to focus on care for a period of time. Other employers have been found to provide more focused measures such as:
carers’ networks as sources of support and advice
carers’ passports for employees with care responsibilities, which document their situation and needs, and help line managers make the required adjustments when the carers change positions within the company
mobility within the organisation to allow carers to take up positions more compatible with their care obligations
taking into account the impact of care responsibilities when assessing performance and making decisions on promotions.
A more creative solution
Responsibility for eldercare can creep up on people and this kind of caring does not come in an expected format – some people may care for someone on an ad hoc basis or at a distance, so employees’ needs are likely to vary considerably. Not all working carers even recognise themselves as such or feel comfortable about discussing their situation, resulting in this kind of care often being a ‘hidden’ issue in organisations. Others may feel under pressure because of their caring responsibilities and more susceptible to stress, and could benefit from counselling if available, or signposting to external sources of support. All of these dimensions mean that encouraging an open and inclusive environment at work, where caring is recognised and discussed as a legitimate issue, is an important consideration for employers. Training for line managers to sensitise them to the needs of carers and encourage them to be more empathetic is also crucial.
This means that organisations will need to think more imaginatively, and consult their employees who have caring responsibilities, about the kind of support that could be provided within the needs of the business. While formal policies are important, supportive colleagues and line managers are also a central influence on the level of support received by working carers.
Organisations that fail to provide a supportive working environment for working carers risk losing valuable talent and skills at a time when both are set to become an increasingly valuable commodity.