Parents have felt the love during lockdown – but what about working carers?

Those who look after a partner, friend or parent on top of their jobs are often overlooked for support by employers, but hopefully this will change post lockdown, says Tolu Farinto

Joe Wicks' PE lessons. Twinkl. BBC’s Super Movers. Parents have had a tough time of lockdown, and the support they’ve received is genuinely lovely. But what about working carers?

Since I was old enough to stack shelves, I’ve played a significant economic role within my household as a young black man – which will mirror the experiences of people with a similar background to mine. I pulled pints, I set up a makeshift business – I made stuff happen so my family was supported. 

This isn’t really about me though, as I am lucky enough to have an employer sensitive to my caring responsibilities. It's about a simple, wider realisation: carers are a statistical anomaly. One in eight UK adults are carers, be that for a partner, friend or a parent. Like everyone else, carers are still clocking on at work, bingeing the latest Netflix series and standing two metres away from others on their weekly shop. They’re just people. Yet the work that comes with the caring role can be hugely taxing, and it can take its toll. 

Pre-lockdown, someone I know literally had to break down in tears in front of her line manager to even have her feelings acknowledged after things had come to a head. Keeping everything bottled up was all she’d ever known – or been allowed. One reason for this is there are generally fewer initiatives for carers in place at work. Parents justifiably have access to a whole host of resources, including kids’ clubs, discounts and flexible working hours. This is all baked into workplaces right from the recruitment process, where support and initiatives are made readily available. Carers don’t necessarily have that, and there’s very little awareness of their plight. During the coronavirus lockdown, that problem’s only been magnified. 

Just like parents, every carer’s situation is different. For example, I know young people who are caring for elderly parents who are still only leaving the house once a week because of the fear of bringing coronavirus home to loved ones who are at high risk. Then there’s the friend who’s decided to temporarily move away from the person she cares for to limit any risk of infection. Both are stressful situations that are completely upending the way those people live and work. And that’s just two examples.

The thing is, there isn’t any quick fix that can make everything better, during or post lockdown. But it’d be one hell of a start if people at least acknowledged the situation. 

Carers like me and the people I know aren’t asking for a free pass, just a bit of empathy. To put it another way, I’m not a crackers and cheese man myself. But if I were having a terrible day and someone sent me a hamper, I’d be over the moon. Naturally, I’d much rather get a lifetime supply of chocolate, but it’s just about those moments of care. 

Carers spend so much time giving themselves to their loved ones – emotionally, physically and financially – that a little bit of care coming their way means a lot. Just the question, ‘what can I do to help?’ from a colleague or employer can make a massive difference.

And the narrative won’t stop when lockdown’s over. Carers will still be there. Just as workplaces will become more open and flexible for parents – as they should – we all need to get our heads around the carer issue. It’s not that we’ve been actively shunning carers – we just haven’t seen them. In the workplace furniture of sex, race and class, they’ve fallen behind the cushions.

I’ve worked for Utopia for a while now. The company embraces a work-from-home culture and doesn’t actually have offices. For me, that’s perfect. The trust and communication is there so if I have to sort something at home, I can. I also have the added benefit of support from coaches, sponsors and mentors who understand my unique challenges around how my responsibilities intersect with who I am and how I’m seen in the world. And that’s the root of it all: trust and empathy. 

Carers need to trust they’ll be listened to and appreciated. Colleagues need to trust carers when they say they’re struggling. Employers need to trust carers’ motives behind wanting the same flexibility and compassion that’s more regularly extended to parents. Hopefully, the openness and emotional nakedness born from lockdown will have a positive effect for this unseen community. If carers get the support they need now, I’m hopeful the conversation will keep going when we’re all back in the office.

Tolu Farinto is a changemaker at Utopia