Caring for a relative, partner or friend who becomes disabled, chronically ill or frail is not something that we plan for in our lives – and yet it will be a life-changing event that will become a reality for many of us.
About 10% of the UK population, or six million people, are unpaid carers, with more than three million people – one in seven of the workforce – juggling the responsibilities of caring and paid employment. Given the stresses and strains that can result from this, it is not surprising that about one in five have given up work in order to care. Many of these employees – the 45- to 64-year-olds, often at the peak of their careers – are among organisations’ most skilled people.
As the population ages, the issue of balancing work with the role of caring is increasingly urgent. Employers, large and small, need to recognise the business case for supporting employees who have caring responsibilities.
Employers for Carers is a new national membership forum for employers who want to support those people. Launched earlier this summer, the forum will be led by a core group of employers including BT, Listawood and Unum Provident and supported by the charity Carers UK. Its purpose will be to identify and promote the business benefits of supporting carers in the workplace, influence employment policy and provide a service to employers seeking to develop best practice in the workplace.
It also aims to help deliver on the commitments promised in the new National Strategy for Carers. This includes a number of measures that will help carers to balance caring with paid work, backed up by new investment worth £38m. The strategy describes the key role employers have to play in supporting carers by offering flexibility, information and understanding. It also includes a commitment from the government to work with business to produce a good practice guide for employers detailing the benefits of employing carers.
It is in the best interests of employers to respond to the challenges set out in the strategy – providing a supportive environment for carers is not only the right thing to do, it is essential for business competitiveness and growth. The kind of support carers need from their employers can be practical and relatively easy to offer, while the return for the enlightened employer will be the retention and loyalty of skilled and motivated people. A report by Carers UK and Sheffield Hallam University showed that supporting carers helped to attract and retain skilled staff and reduced employee stress and sick leave.
Changes to working hours or flexible working practices particularly help carers to combine their work and caring responsibilities. At BT, we have embraced flexible working as a strategic response to the needs of the business and our people. We know that many of the people who take advantage of this flexibility are unpaid carers, with as many as 15% of BT’s 92,000 workforce in the UK potentially fitting this profile. In many instances, the flexibility the company offers is what enables them to continue working for and contributing to BT, while also looking after those who need their care.
Although 2.65 million carers gained the right to request flexible working from April 2007, many carers and employers remain unaware of these rights. As part of the government’s strategy, there will be an awareness campaign to ensure employers, carers and the people they support are aware of the right to request and the benefits it can bring. This will link into the work of the new Employers for Carers forum in encouraging employers to be as flexible and as innovative as possible, sharing with them the policies and tools that enable flexibility.
There is no doubt that business needs to respond to the stark demographic reality we are facing. Employers for Carers is an important vehicle to push forward the agenda to improve the productivity and skill retention of our workforce and the lives of working carers. The business community has to address this challenge, because if it does not, we risk an unsustainable future, both as a society and as a competitive economy.