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Working Carers

The government is considering the case for giving carers five days of paid statutory leave. With World Alzheimer’s Day taking place later this month, this move highlights the growing importance of carers in the workplace, and how employers can better help them to juggle work and caring responsibilities.

Employee health and wellbeing – the case for supporting working carers

The government over the summer committed itself to at least exploring the case for changing the law to give carers five days of statutory paid leave, in a move that could have significant ramifications for employers but also the health and wellbeing of working carers.

In a response to a report by the House of Commons’ Work and Pensions Committee, which had recommended that there was “a strong case” for such extra leave provision, the government said it was prepared to “explore the case” and has set up an official-level working group to look at the complexities of introducing this.

“This includes considering the practical questions that arise around introducing dedicated employment rights with the support of analysts so that any emerging carer’s leave proposal is most effective,” it said.

Were this to happen it would have significant consequences for employers in terms of how they plan and manage leave entitlement. And, with World Alzheimer’s Day by the Alzheimer’s Society taking place later this month on 21 September and Carers’ Rights Day by the charity Carers UK happening on 30 November, it would potentially be a timely move.

Challenging of juggling work and care

A recent survey by Carers UK found that there are approximately 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK, equating to around one in 10 of the entire population.

Some three million of these have to juggle their responsibilities as a carer with work, or around one in nine of the working population.

The poll also highlighted that one in six working carers have had to give up work at some point because to their caring responsibilities, while most of the three million have had to reduce their working hours, causing both financial hardship but also a loss of talent for employers.

The pressures on the so-called “sandwich generation” – squeezed between caring responsibilities for children and elderly dependents and work – have been well-documented.

Similarly, as our workforce ages it is self-evident that more and more workers are likely to be juggling some form of caring responsibility with work, as well as possibly managing their own age-related health conditions.

And this poses a significant challenge for employers in terms of how best to support, accommodate and retain this important talent pool of older workers.

For one, there is the question of how far employers should be expected or even legally forced to go in this context.

The Work and Pensions Committee chair (and now ex-Labour MP) Frank Field criticised the government’s response because it ignored other key recommendations, including introducing the “right to request” flexible working from the outset of employment, as opposed to after 26 weeks’ continuous service.

Supportive organisational culture

Yet, at the same time, there is a compelling argument for employers to be more proactive in this area, especially against the wider backdrop of our ageing workforce.

This can mean, yes, being more flexible around work and more accommodating (within reason) about things like time off or holidays.

It can also be about creating an organisational culture and environment that is transparently supportive, so employees with caring responsibilities can feel confident to come forward to discuss issues or concerns they may have.

And it is recognising that managing caring responsibilities is not solely about the physical mechanics of juggling hours and managing an employee’s presence, or not, at work. There is also an emotional and mental health element to it.

Especially when people are caring for loved ones who are in slow decline through dementia or Alzheimer’s, the emotional toll and burden can be severe. But for almost any caring responsibility there are likely to be moments when the pressure and stress of keeping all the plates spinning becomes too much.

Value of offering access to an EAP

This is where offering access to an EAP can be valuable. An EAP will be able to provide confidential counselling support to help employees manage the direct mental and emotional burden of their caring responsibilities.

But an EAP can also be valuable in terms of practical advice for both managers and employees around issues such as holiday entitlement, workplace adjustments, “difficult” conversations (perhaps around performance or attendance) and simply best practice advice on how to manage this ongoing support process in the best way possible.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, says: “Employers need to recognise that, increasingly, they are likely to be managing employees who also have significant caring responsibilities.

“Caring responsibilities can have a significant impact on an employee’s performance and even their ability to remain in their role long term – they may be distracted, exhausted, or anxious.

“To help employees with caring responsibilities to remain productive and engaged, and to support their health and wellbeing to enable them to carry on in their role, it is in an employer’s interest to provide the best support and flexibility they can.”