Caring for your carers pays dividends

Families today face huge challenges in balancing their work and home responsibilities. This is set to continue, as increasing numbers of employees need to take time out of work to care for elderly or sick relatives.

For example, in the two years to April 2005, 50% of employees who reported taking time off work to care for someone had done so to care for partners, parents or other relatives. This is nearly 10% of all employees.

The best businesses are already giving employees the opportunity to strike the right balance between work and family life, and they are seeing real benefits as a result.

Morale booster

Businesses report that flexible working enables them to maintain morale and commitment, retain experienced and skilled staff, and helps meet increasing customer expectations.

Additionally, the costs incurred – for example in management time and work reorganisation – are often offset by the quantifiable benefits that flexible working provides, such as increased productivity and recruitment savings.

I am very proud of the family-friendly measures the ­government has imple­mented.

For instance, flexible working for parents with children under six and for those with disabled children was first introduced in 2003, and has proved enormously successful.

Almost a quarter of eligible parents have made requests since then, and most have been agreed by their employers. I am pleased that under the Work and Families Act 2006, the scope of the law is now being extended.

From 6 April 2007, the existing right to request flexible working will be opened up to include employees who care for, or expect to care for, adults. Employers will have to seriously consider these requests.

The government understands how difficult it can be for people to balance work responsibilities and care for someone who is sick or disabled. The right to request flexible working will be invaluable to carers struggling to achieve the right work/care balance, and the new legislation is intended to help them stay in, or get back into, employment.

Many carers feel they are forced to give up work because of the lack of flexible employment. In one survey, seven out of 10 carers aged under 50 and eight out of 10 of those aged 50 to 60 had given up work to care.

Evidence shows that once carers give up work completely, they tend to remain out of work for several years.

Increasing choice

It is expected that about 2.65 million carers will be entitled to make a request for flexible working when the right is extended in April. Enabling them to work will increase their choice and independence and is in the best interests of society as a whole.

Although the law does not confer an automatic right to work flexibly – and employers are able to decline requests where it makes business sense to do so – since the average cost of handling a straightforward flexible working request is about £80 (versus an average cost of £4,800 for recruiting a new employee), employers of all sizes can benefit financially from offering flexible working practices to carers.

Rights to flexible working

Who can apply?

Any employee who is, or expects to be, caring for a spouse/partner, civil partner or relative, or someone who lives at the same address as them.

The definition ‘near relative’ includes parents, parents-in-law, adult children, siblings (including in-laws), uncles, aunts, grandparents and step-relatives.

How does an employee apply?

The employee starts the process by providing the employer with a written application in advance of when they would like the desired working pattern to take effect.

The employer must then follow a set procedure designed to ensure the request is considered seriously, and that a discussion about it takes place. An employer can only refuse requests when there is a recognised business need to do so.

By Jim Fitzpatrick, minister for employment relations, Department of Trade and Industry

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