The charity Carers UK estimates that there are almost three million people in the UK who juggle their jobs and unpaid caring. But while most of the publicity and government spin on flexible working focuses on a better deal for parents, the work of carers has often been overlooked.
But finally, carers across the UK will be able to request to work flexible hours when the Flexible Working Regulations are introduced this April. The new rights for carers, which form part of the Work and Families Act 2006, have been largely overshadowed by changes to parental leave which come into force at the same time.
Employers that do not already provide flexible working for staff with wider caring responsibilities should not underestimate the impact of these new rules.
From next month, many employees may be planning to take up their new rights, and employers must do what they can to meet them.
Changing demographics mean the number of working carers is set to increase. According to Carers UK, for someone aged 24 now, their chances of becoming a carer will have trebled by the time they are 59.
With the right planning, there is no reason why this extension to flexible working rights should cause problems. Far from placing an unnecessary burden on organisations, flexible working should, in theory, lead to a happier, more productive workforce and the business benefits that brings with it.
To make the new rules work positively for your organisation, it pays to understand all perspectives – from the legal requirements to employees’ expectations and the benefits that flexible working can achieve.
The legal perspective
First, it is important to understand which employees are covered under the definition of ‘carer’. Under the new rules, a carer is defined as someone who is caring for an adult who is:
married to, or the partner or civil partner of the employee; or
is a near relative of the employee; or
falls into neither category but lives at the same address as the employee.
The ‘near relative’ definition includes parents, parents-in-law, adult children, adopted adult children, siblings (including those who are in-laws), uncles, aunts, grandparents and step-relatives.
Krishna Santra, a senior employment lawyer at Matthew Arnold & Baldwin, says that despite this wide definition, employers should not be afraid to ask employees about their caring arrangements.
“Legally, staff don’t have to provide evidence, but employers are still allowed to ask questions to prevent the new rules from being abused and to understand their situation,” she says.
“You should always ask what caring for the individual involves, so you can understand their needs for flexible working more fully. If the employee claims they care for someone at their address, you may want to ask for evidence, such as a council tax statement.”
Tact is, of course, crucial, and the employee should not be made to feel like their employer questions their honesty, but Santra stresses that managers should not be scared to delve a bit deeper so they get a better understanding of the employee’s needs.
Employees are required to request flexible working in writing, and employers then have 28 days to hold a meeting to discuss options with the employee in a positive manner. “Make sure this meeting is constructive because you will then have just 14 days to set out a decision in writing for the employee,” says Santra.
If you don’t agree to the request, you have to set out the reasons why and inform the employee they have the right to appeal.
“If you don’t set out the reasons carefully, you could potentially expose yourself to sex discrimination claims, as there are likely to be a high percentage of women applying,” she warns.
Reasons for refusing a request include having a ‘detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand’ or ‘inability to reorganise work among existing staff’ – a full list is available on the Department of Trade and Industry’s website.
“But it’s not acceptable to just pick out a reason – you need to back it up with strong evidence, including specific facts and circumstances,” says Santra.
All of this must be put in writing. If accepting a request, you also need to ensure you reply formally in writing detailing the new working pattern, stating the date on which it will start and ensuring the notice is dated. “This documentation is key if you want to stay on the right side of the law, so be thorough,” says Santra.
The carer’s perspective
The right to flexible working can make a huge difference to the lives of employees with caring responsibilities.
Lisa Crowley, who works as a personal assistant to a director at communications giant BT, cares for her elderly mother who suffers from severe arthritis. She has worked for the company for 18 years, and a couple of years ago was given the right to work two days in the office and three days at home so she could care for her mother.
“I did this for 18 months, but I hated leaving mum on the days I was working. I was ready to give in my notice, but after a long chat with my boss he decided to let me work full time from home instead. This has made my life so much easier.
“It means that if my mum isn’t feeling well or I need to take her to the doctors I don’t have to take a full day off work, which means I can manage my workload much better. It also means I don’t have to worry about my mum falling over and injuring herself with me not around, which has reduced my stress levels.
“Because BT has been so understanding, it makes me strive to work even harder and means I feel very loyal to the company,” she says.
John Cowling was working as a senior manager at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) when he was granted a four-day working week to help care for his son, who suffers from cerebral palsy.
“Luckily, my employer believes that if someone is worth keeping you need to help them achieve work-life balance if they are to stay productive. I was able to adjust my working hours as I needed to – the alternative was to put an unbearable strain on my wife,” he says.
However, Cowling believed that his employer could go one step further and provide even more support for carers. He put together a business plan that would mean him working in a new role providing support for other carers in the company.
“There is a lot of support from charities, but not many people at PwC can attend meetings and coffee mornings on a weekday. With 15,000 employees, I worked out there could be 1,000 staff with caring responsibilities who could benefit from support and who may not have been sure of flexible working options at the firm. So I asked if I could set up a networking system,” he says.
PwC agreed to Cowling’s idea and he is now the UK disability co-ordinator and support network manager at the firm. “I’m currently in contact with 110 staff and I’m looking to grow this substantially. The employees involved really appreciate the reassurance and support,” he adds.
The employer’s perspective
Emily Holzhausen, head of policy and public affairs at charity Carers UK, says that introducing flexible working arrangements for staff can provide real business benefits for employers.
“Businesses have reduced their overheads and improved cost-effectiveness by enabling employees to work from home or by making greater use of machinery through longer, more flexible shift patterns,” she says.
As well as reduced absence through illness and stress, Holzhausen says organisations are also able to attract a more diverse, better skilled workforce, reducing recruitment costs and raising productivity. “Flexibility also offers a boost to retention, as staff who might otherwise have felt forced to leave are able to manage their responsibilities as an employee and a carer. But above all, staff who are given the flexibility to manage their time and responsibilities are more satisfied, more motivated and more committed,” she says.
Paul Helsby, senior manager of employee relations at HSBC, says that the bank currently offers a range of flexible options, including job sharing, term-time working and home working.
“Where the needs of the individual and the business can be matched, gains can arise through increased productivity, savings in recruitment and retention costs, reduced sick leave, lower staff turnover and a more engaged workforce with a higher level of trust in relationships at work,” he says.
Caroline Waters, BT’s director for people and policy, says that providing the simple flexibility and practical support that carers need to manage both their professional and caring responsibilities is not difficult, disruptive or expensive – it is just plain business sense.
She adds: “Increased flexibility has helped BT to attract and retain essential skills, increase productivity, cut costs and release the potential of our people, including many of our carers. The extension of the right to request flexible working to carers in April is a long overdue recognition of the important role carers play in society and business.”
For detailed information on employers’ responsibilities under the new regulations, visit the DTI’s website, click on ’employment matters’ and then ‘work and families’.