As the average age of the UK population rises, more people will find themselves juggling work with care responsibilities.
According to Carers UK, a charity that aims to raise awareness of this issue, around 6,000 people take on new caring duties every day. This figure does not include professional carers. It refers to unpaid carers – individuals who are now looking after elderly or disabled family members or friends.
Managers need to be flexible when dealing with carers. Staff looking after such dependants may need time off to take them to the hospital; they might need to make personal calls during the day to make sure everything is alright; or occasionally arrive later due to their obligations.
Progressive employers that can accommodate these needs are likely to see benefits in terms of increased staff retention and loyalty, according to Caroline Waters, director of people and policy at BT.
“Many carers want to combine paid work with their caring role,” she says. “Accommodating their needs is not difficult, disruptive or ex-pensive and is really a win-win situation for employers.”
And employers may soon have to look more closely at how they can assist carers, if proposals in the Work and Families Bill become law.
The proposals aim to extend flexible working rights, which currently only apply to parents with children under five years of age, to include employees with caring responsibilities.
“This will create a new working culture,” says Chris Davies, a professional support lawyer at law firm Halliwells. “Those companies that already have these processes in place will find it easier to comply.”
One company that is ahead of the game in this respect is Centrica. The energy supplier, which employs around 30,000 staff in the UK, has had a carers’ policy in place for eight years, according to group corporate responsibility manager Andrew McCallum.
As well as allowing flexible working and personal phone calls, the company has also made provisions for emergency leave or longer unpaid absences if carers need them.
McCallum argues that providing for carers is “not rocket science” and is about providing “flexibility and understanding”.
At Centrica, line managers are responsible for ensuring carers can work flexibly. They are given a guidance document, which lays out how the carers’ policy should be applied in practice.
“You can’t be too prescriptive in this area,” says McCallum. “We take each case as it comes and deal with it with common sense.”
McCallum says the main challenge of having a carers’ policy is the need to ensure that the flexible staff rota doesn’t hamper customer service. It is vital to ensure that the message is constantly reinforced to remind line managers of the organisation’s philosophy.
“After all, they have targets to hit, and that’s essential to the business,” he says.
But the benefits of this approach far outweigh the downsides. For example, Centrica is able to attract skilled workers who may otherwise be dissuaded from applying for jobs.
“Those employees who don’t have caring responsibilities, but are aware of our policy in this area, also feel much better about the company,” he concludes.
Carers: the statistics
- Eighty per cent of carers are of working age
- Three million carers already combine work and care
- Carers represent one in every eight employees in the UK workforce
- More than 2 million people become carers every year
- Three in five people will become carers at some point in time