One in 10 people provide regular care, unpaid, for a relative, partner, neighbour or friend – a situation of which, as a nation, we can be truly proud. At some point in life, most of us will give help to those near or dear to us who need extra support. Some carers – those caring for a disabled child, elderly relative, or someone with a long-term illness, for example – give their support for years. Others care for shorter periods, perhaps during a terminal illness, or while a loved one recovers from an accident or a spell of poor health.
In partnership with Carers UK, my colleagues at the University of Leeds and I have been researching the circumstances of the two million men and women in paid work who regularly give unpaid care to others. Such people are found in all occupations and in firms of every size – approximately 10% of all male employees and 14% of all female employees are carers.
Our research shows that some organisations have found effective, mutually beneficial ways of supporting carers while they are in paid work. Flexible employment, supportive networks, and trust-based, output-focused management are the key to their success.
We have also examined statistics and demographic projections about the need for care. These confirm that, in the future, more people will be carers, more people will need care, and more employees will combine work and care. It’s a big issue which should be on the agenda of every company director and senior manager, as well as concentrating minds in government and in health and social care agencies.
Why is caring on the increase?
Many of the reasons are positive. We are saving more lives that would once have been cut short – through heart disease, cancer and other major illnesses. More disabled babies and small children are living into adulthood, thanks to major improvements in healthcare. We are living longer – with more active years in good health, but more years in need of care too. We are mostly adamant that when we need extra help, we want it, where possible, at home. We want some of that care to be given to us by those we love. When we are ill, we want to spend the minimum time necessary in hospital. Disabled people want to lead ordinary lives, with privacy and independence. And if frail in old age, we want to be supported at home.
Those who need support, and their carers, need reliable, flexible services to be independent and to exercise choice in their daily lives. Good experiences of care and of caring involve effective partnerships – between those who need care, providers of health and social care services, and unpaid carers. All parties know how important each is in delivering quality of life, security and reassurance around the clock, and compassionate, personal support. When it happens to us, we have no doubt that good arrangements for care are the hallmark of a decent and civilised society.
We know we have not yet got services right, and that demand already outstrips supply. My team is researching the services working carers need, and has already found that responsiveness, flexibility and reliability are crucial. Nobody wants all unpaid care to be replaced, so new ways of funding, delivering and expanding services are essential.
Personnel Today’s campaign for tax breaks for carers is highlighting these issues and calling for new thinking about expanding the resources available. It’s important for employers to take a view, because if services cannot develop and expand, more carers will exit the workplace, leaving organisations with skill and labour shortages – even though, as our research shows, many carers really do want to combine paid work with care.
The facts tell us that carers should be on everyone’s agenda; supporting carers and developing good services requires innovation, action and commitment from government, employers and trade unions alike, to ensure we put in place the funding and frameworks needed for 21st century lives.
Sue Yeandle is professor of sociology at the University of Leeds