Providing support to carers in the workplace

With an ageing population, UK employers are experiencing an increase in numbers of those within their workforce who are undertaking unpaid care. In 2019, research by Carers UK revealed that one in seven of all workers have caring responsibilities that they are managing alongside their professional lives, with over two million having reduced working hours in order to meet their responsibilities. A staggering nearly 2.6 million people are reported to have given up work in order to care full time, with around 600 people leaving work every day over the past two years.

Certain employees can be affected more than others, for example, it has been revealed that 61% of female carers undertake work, while 68% of male carers are in work, showing that women’s employment is more likely to be affected by caring responsibilities. It is also thought that caring commitments fall more on those aged between 45 and 64 — an age where these individuals are more likely to be employed in senior and high-level positions within organisations.

Government pledges

In the 2017 Conservative manifesto, specific employment rights for working carers were pledged but, until now, have not been introduced.

Following further attention on this area, in mid 2018 the Government announced a commitment to review paid leave for working carers. The review is aimed at considering whether five days’ statutory paid leave could be introduced for those who undertake work while caring. A recommendation from the work and pension’s committee also called for the right to request flexible working to be amended to become a day-one right, in turn helping those with caring responsibilities to request flexibility at an earlier stage within their employment to create a workable balance. In response, the Government set up a taskforce with responsibility for promoting flexible working and to examine how organisations are responding to the Prime Minister’s encouragement to advertise all roles as flexible from day one unless there are business reasons not to do so.

The business case

Providing internal support for employees with caring responsibilities makes good business sense. While this may be regarded as an outside commitment, 9% of women have revealed that providing unpaid care has had a negative impact on their paid work. With 600 staff leaving employment every day, this can have a significant impact on the quality and productivity of a greater than expected number of employees during working hours. Where experienced or senior employees are considering leaving work to care full time, this can leave a substantial talent gap within your business that can take a lengthy period to fill. After all, managers are aware of how long it can take to bring someone up to scratch with little notice, regardless of whether they are an internal move or an external applicant.

When Carers UK asked workers what interventions by their employers would be most helpful to support their caring responsibilities alongside their work, 89% of respondents stated a supportive employer or line manager alongside an entitlement to an additional five to 10 days’ paid leave for caring. The third most popular workplace intervention, advocated by 77% of respondents, was flexible working.

To prevent a lack of support leading to valued employees giving up their employment to focus on their care commitments, employers can seek to create a supportive and understanding workplace environment for carers. Alongside recent recognition that those with childcare commitments perhaps need greater flexibility and support during working hours, the same can be said for those who care for other dependants. Common examples of carer-supportive workplace measures are discussed below.

Carer-friendly policies

Organisations may choose to introduce policies on leave for carers. As there is currently no statutory right to such leave, it will be for each employer to consider what provisions are included within these policies, including the following.

  • The length of leave that will be provided, eg five days per leave year.

  • Whether leave is paid or unpaid, and at what rate.

  • Whether any eligibility requirements apply to carer leave, eg the employee must have a minimum length of service before being entitled to time off for their care commitments.

Alternatively, there may be the opportunity to reflect caring responsibilities in other policies, such as any workplace policies on unpaid leave, sabbaticals or flexible working. It may be that organisations choose to allow flexible working requests from day one or will follow an internal process to consider non-statutory requests from all employees with less than 26 weeks’ service, including those who are requesting flexibility to arrange their work commitments around care.

Being flexible

While certain care commitments can be scheduled, there are likely to be many occasions where an employee is required to provide dependant care at short notice or in emergency situations. While there is the statutory right to unpaid time off for dependants which can cover situations such as these, supportive employers may operate specific internal time off for caring policies which contain provisions for short notice leave.

Other practices can also be adapted to reflect, and support, those with caring responsibilities. This may include allowing a worker to work from home on a flexible basis, where their care means they are unable to attend the office on short notice. An alternative may include operating flexi-time where employees work flexible working hours during a specific period so long as they complete a minimum number of hours overall.

Supportive environment

As one of the most popular workplace interventions, the type of support offered by line managers and employers has a significant impact on the ability of employees to continue working whilst caring. Those who leave work to care full time may feel that they have no other choice because their personal commitments are not recognised or understood, as well as feeling they are being subjected to detriments because of this.

As a first step, line managers can show their support by meeting with employees and discussing their caring responsibilities. Having dialogue on this issue allows employers to understand the extent of care commitments being managed by the employee and ensures employees are aware of the types of support, including leave and flexibility, that are available to them. Their concerns and issues can then be proactively discussed and managed throughout their employment.

Creating awareness and organisational support of those with caring commitments can be publicised in various forms to help create a positive working environment, including outlining commitments to carers in the Employee Handbook or signing up to initiatives such as Carer Positive for those in Scotland.