Carers: the Balancing Act

Guest blogger Gemma Reucroft warns of an imminent “caring explosion” in the UK labour market.

There are currently over six million carers in the UK, a figure that is expected to increase to nine million by 2037. Every single day 6,000 people take on a new caring responsibility. At some point in our lives, three in five of us will be a carer. Then there’s the relatively recent phenomenon of the so-called sandwich generation: people caring for elderly parents whilst still having children living at home.

We have an ageing population. More than 15 million people in the UK currently have a long-term health condition. Conditions such as diabetes, dementia, chronic heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are rising, fast.

Within just five years we will reach a critical point: there will be more people needing care than people available to meet the demand.

Caring for someone else is a constant balancing act, especially for those who are also in work. This has been one of those issues that is both known but unknown. Well understood in some areas and within some organisations, but not yet truly in the consciousness to the extent that it needs to be. Because this is going to have a significant impact on the workplace. A caring explosion is coming.

Awareness is starting to increase. The recent annual CIPD survey into absence at work showed that more than a third of employers believe that caring responsibilities have had an impact on their absence levels. The benefits industry is also waking up. Eldercare is now predicted to be the next big flex benefit offering.

Research by Carers UK highlights the extent of the problem. Thirty-four per cent of carers feel that they have missed out on promotion or development opportunities at work. Forty-two per cent  have taken a reduced income in order to provide that care, and it’s estimated that around two million carers have left the labour market altogether.

For those carers that do stay in work, they have a serious risk of developing mental health conditions themselves. Ninety-two per cent of carers describe themselves as feeling stressed as a result of their caring role. It’s not unusual for carers to neglect their own health when they are prioritising the care of someone else. There is also the potentially significant financial impact that can arise as a result of caring. Employers need to take action to prepare their organisations to meet this challenge.

Whether or not they have identified themselves to their employer as such (and often people don’t classify themselves as a carer), in every organisation there will be employees who have some sort of caring responsibility outside of their day job. And there is no question that these numbers will increase in the years to come.

We can’t afford to let the skills held by carers  disappear out of the labour market. The age profile of carers suggests that they will be at the peak of their careers when they take on these responsibilities but they are likely to need support from their employer in order to continue to balance caring and work.

Many carers are ‘hidden’, as they often feel unable to confide in their employers. However, for some carers, support from an employer may be the only support they get.

Under UK law, carers can make an application to their employer for flexible working after a qualifying period. They have few other formal protections or support mechanisms. Whilst there is also a legal right to take emergency time off for dependants, this right extends for just a day or two to make alternative care arrangements, and the time off is unpaid.   Simply applying the basic statutory position will not be enough if you want to genuinely retain and support carers in your organisation. The qualifying period for requesting flexible working can be a particular barrier to those seeking to re-enter the labour market.

When it comes to supporting carers at work, one of the most impact factors that allows them to juggle work and care, is flexibility. This doesn’t necessarily mean formal flexible working arrangements. Many health conditions are unpredictable and can change quickly. Carers may have to attend hospital appointments, take phone calls during the working day, take leave at short notice.  It’s not about someone going part-time or changing hours on a permanent basis it may be that some informal everyday flexibility will suffice, as the caring demands flex too.

The other crucial factor is support. A supportive employer, and a supportive line manager in particular, can make all the difference, and small changes are often all that are required.

Here is where HR departments come in. Education is needed, and so is effective communication. Carers need to know that it is okay to be open about their caring responsibilities, and understand their right to request flexible working. Line managers need to be educated in the important role they play in supporting the carer in balancing their sometimes competing priorities. There is no one solution that meets the needs of all carers. The support an employer can provide must be tailored to the individual situation.

There will be no organisation immune from the caring effect. So it is time to get prepared for what is to come.

Gemma Reucroft is UK HR Director at Tunstall Healthcare (UK) Ltd., and a prolific blogger on HR and employment law & policy issues. Follow Gemma on Twitter: @HR_Gem
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