Why HR should step up and support working carers

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The UK’s social care crisis was a hot topic during this month’s general election, serving to highlight the growing number of people who have to juggle work with caring responsibilities. Steve Herbert looks at how employers can support staff who are carers. 

I think most would accept that the 2017 general election probably raised more questions than answers with regard to the key political issues of the day.

Yet some of those questions have at least benefited from the increased oxygen of debate, and one such area is the UK’s social care crisis, and by extension the role of working carers.

To avoid confusion, the definition of a working carer is “someone in full or part-time employment, who also provides unpaid support, or looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their age, physical or mental illness, or disability”.

Given the crisis in social care funding, and of course the increases in life expectancy, it is to be expected that the number of employees who double as unpaid carers is on the increase. Yet the reality of the numbers is frankly rather shocking.

Balancing work with care

Charity Carers UK estimates that more than 3 million people fall into the working carer category at present.

This equates to around one in every nine of the UK working population, and it follows that most organisations will already have some working carers within their employ.

Yet, a Jelf Employee Benefits survey found that only 13% of employers believed that they were aware of all their employees who also doubled as carers in their non-work time.

Surely these individuals are already balancing their work and caring duties, and as such the issue is not one for the workplace?

This might well be true, but it overlooks the reality of the strains placed on such employees.

Many working carers feel uncomfortable talking about caring at work, and feel that their employer doesn’t understand their caring role.

This lack of empathy can be stressful for the employee, and may impact their health, finances and wellbeing.

In turn, this can be bad news for employers who need to maintain high levels of employee engagement and productivity given the uncertain economic situation at present.

Another recent survey carried out for Carers UK last year showed the impact on those carers who faced barriers to employment:

  • four in 10 (41%) carers said their work had suffered;
  • 28% of carers reported not pursuing or turning down a promotion in order to be able to care; and
  • two-thirds (66%) of carers felt they had no option but to give up work or reduce their hours.

Retaining valued staff

These statics are really worrying. It appears that good employees, who also happen to be carers in their own time, are being prevented from career progression and/or being forced out of the workplace altogether.

The direct costs of replacing such an individual can be significant, as can the additional pressure on those colleagues who have to provide cover for the vacant placement whilst their employer undertakes the often slow processes of advertising, interviewing, and ultimately replacing the departing employee.

And even once the position is filled, it can take anywhere between 15 and 52 weeks for a new joiner to reach optimal productivity in their job role, according to research by Oxford Economics.

I would suggest that the above data provides a useful starting point for a formal business case in this respect. Most employers already accept that it is generally more cost-effective to retain talent than to try to replace it.

Follow this argument to its logical conclusion, there is absolutely a case for providing much greater support for working carers. But where to start on such a task?

Happily, there are organisations already working on this very issue, and a report published in June entitled “Top Tips for Supporting Working Carers” provides a concise guide and starting point to this mission.

Targeted benefits

In addition, many existing employee benefits can be harnessed to provide valuable assistance in this area. So employers should ensure that all benefits are well-communicated, understood, and utilised.

In particular, items such as employee assistance plans and financial education will be particularly useful to many working carers, and should therefore should be promoted rigorously and regularly where relevant. And don’t forget to offer flexible working where possible as well.

The bottom line is that working carers already represent a sizable slice of the UK national workforce, and this grouping is likely to grow further in the years ahead.

So it is now time that many more HR professionals recognised this trend and took action to support working carers wherever possible.

Steve Herbert

About Steve Herbert

Steve Herbert is head of benefits strategy at Howden Employee Benefits.
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