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Coach Suzanne Bourne talks about her experiences as a working carer in the penultimate in her series of articles for Carers Week.
For many unpaid carers working really isn’t an option as they care 24-7. Conversations about working and caring need to be had with sensitivity. This isn’t about forcing stressed and exhausted carers to work. There are, however, carers who want to continue working or return to work for a number of reasons. Financial independence now and for the future is, of course, important, as is career development, personal fulfillment and being part of a community outside of a caring role.
I have a very positive personal experience of balancing work and caring. Until recently I worked part-time for Parkinson’s UK. As a carer I found the charity to be a supportive employer with a number of things in place to support carers, such as flexible working hours, carers leave and an online carers network. I was able to secure a part-time, home-based role. I had set hours, but with a flexibility that worked for me as well as for my team.
I was part of a remote working team, some of whom also had experience of caring. My line manager understood my caring situation and the impact it had on me. Our team worked well together and supported each other. If we knew someone was having a tough time with work or life we would check in with a non-work phone call, make time for a chat and lift pressure where we could.
I really hate to let people down or not do my bit, but one morning I joined an online meeting exhausted through lack of sleep and I had to admit defeat. The team understood, I went back to bed and didn’t feel guilty about it. When I logged back in that afternoon I hadn’t been assigned any new actions from that meeting and in fact one issue I was working on had been resolved, so I didn’t have to then also work harder to catch up.
The work we were doing made a real difference to the lives of people living with Parkinson’s. For me this was a revelation that I could have a meaningful career whilst still looking after my husband and family.
My earlier career was in hotels and conference venues. I worked with some fun and hard-working teams. As a line manager I remember one of my team was a mum with a daughter who had ongoing health problems. Looking back I know I tried hard to support her, but, if I’m honest, I know I could have done a lot better. We dealt with emergencies as they happened, but I wish I’d sat down and had a proactive conversation with her about what else we could put in place, and to just ask her how she was.
Later when my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s I really didn’t expect my employer to ‘do’ anything. My world had been deeply shaken, but I carried on working long, stressful days. When the time came to start a family there were good policies and processes in place. I took maternity leave and returned to a part-time role. I didn’t realise it but my career ambitions had stalled. I imagined that I would never return to full-time work and that I would not be able to progress in this industry where working full time meant a 60-hour week. It never occurred to me to have a conversation about this.
I don’t feel my line managers let me down. In fast-paced environments we all get lost in the operational moments of covering rotas, dealing with emergencies and putting our customers first. I do, however, think that a few small changes in policies, awareness and culture would have made all the difference to me and other carers in that organisation.