Employers’ duties towards employees caring for elderly relatives

What obligations do employers have to staff who care for elderly relatives, and what are the benefits of allowing them to work more flexibly? Jane Crosby reports

Employers appear to be fully conversant with how to deal with flexible working in terms of childcare, but employers also have an obligation to consider flexible working for employees with caring responsibilities for elderly parents. The change in normal working hours can be to the number of hours worked, to the start and end time, or allowing some work to be carried out at home. 

The change from having to consider childcare responsibilities to wider considerations has taken place gradually. But the employer is only required to consider the request. The employer can reasonably refuse to grant any flexible working request if it would have a detrimental effect on the business, including incurring additional costs, have a negative impact on the quality of service or performance, or an inability to meet customer demands. 

An employer only has to demonstrate that they have taken the request seriously, met with the employee to discuss the situation and permitted an appeal against that decision, before deciding that part-time working is really not appropriate for their particular business. Employers also have to treat every application the same. It would be difficult to justify granting part-time flexible working to one employee while declining it to another.

The obligation to treat all employees' requests for flexible working the same has to be taken seriously, not least because of the implications of a refusal. An employee with caring responsibilities may have to resign if they cannot fit the employer's core hours around their other commitments. For this reason, legislation sets out a certain timeline for dealing with requests. 

If however, an employee feels they have been unfairly treated and believes the employer’s refusal is unreasonable, advice should be sought because they may make an application to the employment tribunal within three months of the date they were told that the appeal for flexible working had been declined. 

Disagreement is most likely to arise where an employee considers the reasons for refusal have not been carefully considered. This is especially likely if flexible working has been granted in similar circumstances in the past. 

The right to request flexible working has been extended to employees who do not have primary caring responsibilities. For example, relatives who are not the main carers in the family, could also apply for flexible working, and others may prefer to miss the rush-hour traffic by starting work an hour later, and finishing work an hour later. Working from home would accommodate many employees who would otherwise face a long commute, or perhaps ease older employees into a phased retirement. 

While any changes can be viewed as potentially problematic, many employees may find a more relaxed approach to their working hours in the office beneficial. It may suit some employers, whilst others may find it totally impracticable, with negative implications on cost and the provision of a quality service. 

Providing requests are taken seriously, and a fair process is undertaken, with employers willing to consider flexibility in their approach and the working practices, there is no reason why a new way of working could not result in a more productive and happier workforce. 

Jane Crosby is partner at law firm Hart Brown