By Jonathan Swan, Research & Policy Officer, Working Families
Employers have developed suites of policies to meet the needs of employees who need to fulfil caring responsibilities, be these fathers, mothers or carers of other adults. Often these policies fit within a wider overarching framework of flexibility, in which all employees have the opportunity to adjust the way in which they work.
Nonetheless, very few employers rely solely on a blanket ‘total flexibility’ approach, most preferring to target specific support at specific groups of employees. One of the challenges around carers that was identified in our 2013 Top Employers for Working Families Benchmark & Awards was that of carer visibility: locating employees who are also carers can be problematic. Organisations need to make sure that they are doing all they can to provide an environment in which carers feel that they can come forward, confident in the knowledge that they will be supported.
There are different approaches to this in evidence in the 2013 Benchmark. Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, for example, have acknowledged the reluctance of employed carers to sometimes reveal that they are caring for someone, so have developed a carer’s registration scheme to enable employees to draw on confidential assistance if they wish.
Other organisations, like British Gas, winners of the 2013 Best for Carers Award, have taken a multiple- track strategy: they have developed and fostered a large carer network (overtly supported by a Director), they carry out detailed analysis of their workforce survey to specifically locate and understand their carers, and they have targeted extra resources at building up the levels of information and support for carers.
In terms of policy provisions, there is much good practice evident in 2013 that can be drawn on. Recognisingthe time demands that caring can make is crucial. British Gas has a solid suite of policies which includes practical arrangements aimed at carers, along with support for line managers and networking for employees. Their Carers Policy which, in addition to dependant and emergency leave, provides up to one month’s matched leave per year. For example, if an employee takes five days annual leave for caring responsibilities British Gas will match this with an additional five days. There is no service requirement to be eligible for this leave. Carers are also supported through an Employee Assistance Programme which includes carer-specific support.
It is also important that employers understand the real effects on employee capability and capacity that caring responsibilities can bring. For example, The London School of Economics have developed a policy which ensures that leave taken for caring reasons is taken into account and is used when reviewing work output and career development. This recognition that caring responsibilities (both short and long term) can disrupt established working patterns and affect performance levels is part of a lifecycles approach, working with employees to manage difficult circumstances. Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has invested in work with managers across the organisation to build a culture where carers’ needs are treated as an equal priority as working parents.
Although good practice is apparent, the 2013 benchmark revealed that carers are still lagging behind fathers and mothers in terms of policy support. This is partly an historical legacy of the way that work and life integration policy have been developed, with mothers the main focus of initiatives started in the 1980s. Carers, and fathers, are still catching up, although over the last year the gap between carers and fathers has almost disappeared.
The next challenge for employers is to try to make sure that carers can access a similar level of support that is currently available to mothers of young children. An additional area employers might wish to consider is reliance on managerial discretion to apply and make available support and benefits, such as time off for dependent care (and pay for this time off). This carries risks of inconsistent application and perceptions of unfairness amongst employees. There may be patchy application of policies as attitudes vary from manager to manager. There is always a balance between prescription and autonomy. The ideal is an open culture of trust. Line manager training and training for HR, plus an escalation procedure outside of the reporting line are essential.
Perhaps the most crucial thing that employers can do is to ensure that the values that they espouse translate into the wider culture of the organisation. Top-down assertions of commitment to work-life balance for all employees will flounder if policies are not supported by a flexible culture.