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Lucie Mitchell investigates the growing number of workers facing caring responsibilities and what employers are doing to support them.
Most employers will have employees who are juggling work and caring for a loved one. In fact, research published last month by Carers UK revealed that one in seven of the workforce, equating to almost five million workers, are trying to balance work and caring responsibilities, while 2.6 million have quit their job to care for a loved one.
“More than 600 people give up work every day to care – nearly half a million have done so in the last two years alone – taking with them talent and sometimes years of experience,” remarks Katherine Wilson, head of employment at Carers UK. “With our ageing population and the need to work for longer, support for carers in the workplace is becoming an increasingly important issue for employers.”
It’s therefore crucial that employers provide a ‘carer-friendly’ workplace for their employees, to not only provide vital support but guard against a loss of productivity, revenue and key talent.
“Family carers are providing approximately 149 million hours of care each week, and the sheer amount of time that Brits are having to spend care-giving could put considerable pressure on the workforce, ranging from higher absenteeism and lost productivity to a greater risk of distraction and even burnout,” remarks Kelly Feehan, service director at wellness charity CABA.
So what can employers do to support their employees who are carers? The research by Carers UK found that 89% of UK employees felt a supportive line manager or understanding employer would be important to them, while 88% want the option to work flexibly, and 80% would like five to 10 days’ paid care leave.
A good place to start is to implement a carers’ policy, which clearly outlines the steps you will take to support employees who have caring responsibilities.
“Measures can include allowing for flexible working hours or granting extended leave where necessary,” suggests Andrew Willis, head of legal at Croner. “You should also be familiar with statutory entitlements that might assist the employee and make sure they are aware of them. For example, all employees are allowed a reasonable amount of unpaid time off for dependants to deal with an emergency situation.”
Freehan also recommends that employers research whether there are support groups or schemes that staff can be directed towards – or even provide support within the organisation. “Caring for an elderly relative or a young child can be incredibly draining, so ensuring there is mental health or emotional support available for employees who are feeling run down will be beneficial.”
Employers for Carers, a business forum supported by Carers UK, has also launched Carer Confident, a UK-wide employer benchmarking scheme to help encourage employers to create supportive workplaces for staff with caring responsibilities.
“The scheme recognises and accredits those employers who have built supportive and inclusive workplaces for carers,” explains Wilson. “This could be through recruitment policies, flexible working and leave provision, training, coaching or staff support networks.”
Some of the more progressive employers are going above and beyond to support the carers in their workforce. Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, has been supporting working carers for over 15 years. The organisation currently employs over 1,100 registered carers, but estimates that 60% of their 30,000 employees will be carers at some point in their working lives.
Some of the measures the organisation has put in place include flexible working for carers from day one of employment, a month of paid carers’ leave and a carers’ network that provides peer support and advice.
As a result, Centrica has seen significant business benefits, including attracting and retaining a diverse and skilled workforce, amongst many others.
“By having a carers’ policy in place, it reduces turnover, cuts recruitment and training costs, retains talent and experience, builds resilience and improves employee engagement and wellbeing,” comments Simi Dubb, director of diversity and inclusion at Centrica. “As a company, we have saved an estimated £1.8 million a year by providing paid leave and peer support to help our carers avoid unplanned absences and presenteeism. On a national level, if UK businesses were to implement flexible working policies, it is projected that up to £4.8 billion could be saved a year.”
A report out last year by the Social Market Foundation also found that the majority of carers are women, with 16.5% of women providing family care, compared to 12.4% of men.
“We also know that giving up work to care unpaid disproportionately affects women, with 1.6 million women having quit their job to care – a third more than men,” says Wilson. “It’s therefore imperative that employers with a large female workforce lead the way in introducing carer-friendly policies and practices.”
Feehan adds that employers could help to ensure that caring duties don’t restrict women’s careers by actively working to reduce any pay gap that may exist between their male and female staff. “This could open up the possibility of women staying in work while men take on greater responsibility for care.”
With an ageing population, as well as a mounting need for employers to improve flexibility, it will be crucial to implement policies and systems that provide carers with the support they need. Dubb remarks: “As businesses become more agile and the number of carers continues to increase rapidly year on year, operating flexible employment policies will be a non-negotiable in attracting and retaining staff.”