Trade secrets: supporting carers in the workplace

At some point in our lives more than half of us will become carers, whether it be for parents, a partner, family member, friend or child with special needs. What can employers do to help?

Endless energy, the ability to stay calm under enormous pressure, to make good decisions, juggle dozens of tasks, work independently and remain motivated. The perfect person spec? Perhaps, but what it actually describes are just a few of the qualities required to survive as a carer.

No wonder then that employers are beginning to look at how they can support the UK’s estimated six million carers, many of whom are trying to hold down a job while looking after a parent, partner, relative, friend or child with special needs.

Factor in statistics which show that at some point in our lives more than half of us will be carers, and it’s clear that, as we continue to live longer and work longer, there’s an increasing need for business to embrace carers’ needs as part of their efforts to encourage work-life balance.

No organisation can easily afford to lose that number of staff, especially as many of those will be aged between 45 and 64, and likely to be the organisation’s most experienced employees.

First, recognise your carers

Thinking about how to care for carers in the workplace is a relatively new phenomenon, but in the last few years a slow trickle of legislation has begun to flow – most recently, the Work and Families Act, which places a statutory responsibility on employers to consider any request from carers who ask for flexible working.

As with most employment law, it tends to fall into the laps of human resources professionals to interpret such legislation, and ensure understanding and compliance across their organisation. But even as they do so, they face the same major challenge as any of the statutory and voluntary agencies supporting carers – finding out who the carers actually are.

That isn’t only because many don’t want their employers to know the full extent of their home responsibilities, in case it calls into question their commitment, or suitability for promotion. In many cases, carers fail to recognise themselves, and their need for extra support to ‘keep all the balls in the air’. Often, it is only when the burden becomes so great that their health or wellbeing is at risk do they acknowledge the caring role, and by then many will have chosen to give up working altogether, since they cannot give up the relationship with the person they are caring for.

Over and above ensuring their organisation adheres to both the letter and the spirit of legislation, it is in raising awareness of the carer’s role, creating a culture in which carers are able to identify themselves and feel comfortable about accessing support, that HR professionals can make the biggest difference.

Leaflets, posters advertising local support services, lunchtime sessions run by health and social service professionals who support carers, a small library of books that carers can borrow to help them fathom and access the myriad of health, social and voluntary services that can help with some aspect of their role, are all ways in which HR can begin to create that culture of awareness and acceptance.

Business benefits

The small but growing number of companies that have introduced special support arrangements for carers say there have been strong business benefits in doing so.

BT, for instance, has enshrined flexible working into its culture – so long as it fits with operational needs – with up to 11,000 staff now working from home on occasion.

Since introducing across-the-board flexible working policies, BT claims to have identified:

  • Productivity gains of 21% for those working flexibly
  • Reduced sick leave – less than three days a year for homeworkers
  • Staff turnover of less than 4%
  • A ‘trust-based relationship with employees that is worth its weight in gold’.

BT is one of the founding members of Employers for Carers, a network of public and private sector organisations offering advice on supporting carers in the workplace based on their own experience. The network has just produced an employer’s resource pack, available free of charge.

Building a support programme

Unlike maternity, caring doesn’t always follow a neat pattern. There may be times of crisis, occasions when there are extra demands, and then other periods when life runs relatively smoothly. Because most carers experience life as this kind of rollercoaster, the support they say they need most from their employers is flexibility.

Being a flexible employer might entail anything from allowing them to use the phone for personal calls to granting unpaid leave, renegotiating hours, or allowing the carer to do more work from home.

Among the flexible working practices carers and employers have negotiated are:

  • Compressed days: starting and finishing early, or starting and finishing late, so that they can meet their caring responsibilities either at the end or beginning of the day.
  • Stretched day: an early start and later finish to accommodate a two to three-hour lunch break in the middle of the day.
  • Extended working week: hours spread over six or seven days to allow each day to be shorter.
  • Annualised hours.
  • Arrangements for unpaid leave.
  • Arrangements for homeworking.

The carers’ policy

Alongside efforts to increase the visibility of carers in the workplace, it’s helpful to staff and line managers to create a carers’ policy. This will form part of the existing equal opportunities and diversity policies, since employees with caring responsibilities should have the same opportunities to get a job and stay in work as everyone else.

To give carers and their employers a framework in which to negotiate flexible working, the policy you set out should include details of how the organisation defines a carer, details of support provisions available to them, and support options available to their managers.

The organisation’s HR team will almost certainly want to involve carers in discussing the kinds of support that would make a difference, recognising that one size is unlikely to fit all. But bear in mind that since it’s time and energy that carers say are in shortest supply, lack of response shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of demand for greater support.

To win recognition for the policy and programme, it can be helpful to identify a carer ‘champion’ within the organisation – perhaps a former carer who can front any communications activity around the introduction of the policy.

Negotiating support

With a carers’ policy in place, each case will need to be dealt with individually. It’s helpful to everyone to structure arrangements for support by getting staff who are carers to consider the following:

  • How long their role as a carer is likely to last
  • Whether the demands on them are likely to stay at around the same level or increase
  • What they feel are the effects of caring on their general health and wellbeing
  • What the financial implications of any changes in work might be
  • Whether their skills are likely to become out of date if they take time out
  • And finally, the place of paid work in their lives. At a time when so much of their life feels out of their control, and their own needs are being placed on hold, work can actually be a lifeline a place where carers feel they do have control and recognition.

From HR colleagues, carers need practical advice on what their options are how flexible the organisation is able and willing to be, and on what terms. Are you willing for them to take time off to attend appointments to meet health and social workers during office hours? They will also need to know how any change to working circumstances might impact on their pension. Also, how long is the organisation willing to be flexible for? It’s usually possible to accommodate a crisis, but will the employer still be as willing if it becomes a long-term commitment?

Case study: Open University

Ruth’s mother suffers from multiple health problems including osteoporosis and visual impairment, but has a lively and active mind. Ruth visits her every lunchtime, and after finishing work at the Open University, she goes to cook her mother’s meals and sort out the cleaning, laundry and paperwork. Initially, she negotiated to start work at the university at 7am to allow herself a two-hour lunch break for the visit. But because she was staying late with her mother, the early starts proved too much.

Ruth went back to her line manager, and they agreed she could reduce her weekly hours to give her the extended lunch break without the early start. She and her manager agreed to alter her hours for six months and review Ruth’s circumstances at the end of this period.

Ruth opted not to change her hours permanently while her mother’s health is still deteriorating, in case the time comes when she is able to go back to work full-time.

Our expert

Jane Matthews became a carer when her uncle was diagnosed with cancer. She managed her caring responsibilities with support from her employer at the time, the Open University, where she was head of publications. She now works as a journalist and is the author of a number of self-help titles, including The Carer’s Handbook.

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