Employer support for working parents has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, allowing staff to better balance work and childcare.
But the fact that there are currently more people over the age of 80 in the UK than there are children under the age of five should signal to employers that staff need similar levels of support to help them care for their elderly relatives.
Parents now enjoy improved maternity and paternity leave, tax exemptions for childcare vouchers and the right to request flexible working. The logical next step must be to extend similar rights to employees with ‘eldercare’ responsibilities.
Our ageing workforce – with growing numbers of workers aged over 45 – means employers will have more staff with older relatives whom they care for.
There are some six million carers in the UK – more than half currently work, and many more would with the right support, while a quarter of the UK’s population will be over the age of 65 by 2035.
For employers, the case for supporting carers at work is similar to supporting parents: it helps with recruitment and retention, loyalty, motivation and productivity, all of which give employers a competitive edge.
There is no doubt of the need. The majority of women now work, and a growing percentage of working adults in the UK are responsible for caring for a parent or older relative, with 45- to 65-year-old workers most likely to be carers.
The ageing workforce means we need to retain and attract more carers into employment.
At the same time, more older people are living in their own homes, but few of them receive sufficient care and support.
Independence should not mean isolation and exclusion. Investing in local services enhances the quality of life for older people, and prevents crises and problems that increase the need for more intensive and expensive home care or hospital/residential services.
Helping older people retain control and choice over their life means carers can work reassured in the knowledge that their parent or relative is safe and secure at home.
Employers are beginning to recognise that eldercare will be a bigger issue for their workforce, but few in the UK provide help. I believe that will begin to change.
Already the Work and Families Bill is extending the right to request flexible working to carers. It must be right also to explore whether tax exemptions for employer-supported eldercare vouchers could be introduced to help inject more cash into care.
The government’s 2007 spending review is an opportunity to examine this option.
As with childcare, the key starting point for employers is knowing their workforce, auditing their needs and finding out what support would help them balance their work and care responsibilities.
Employees are perhaps more reluctant to raise eldercare issues (than childcare) in the workplace given the serious health needs, increasing care obligations and physical separation often involved.
The extension of the right to request flexible working is an important step forward.
The definition of carers also needs to be as wide as possible. This new measure will deal with the time burden, but not all the issues facing carers, so two other things could be done – vouchers and better advice.
Tax breaks for childcare vouchers are increasingly popular among employers and workers. Why not for eldercare?
Voucher companies and employers say there is a demand. Vouchers could be used for gardening, home improvements and repairs, chiropody and befriending, for example, or on equipment and telecare, as well as domiciliary care. Critically, this proposal will also bring extra funding into the care system.
Stephen Burke, chief executive, Counsel and Care