The challenge for HR of supporting the squeezed generation

How can employers best help workers with caring responsibilities? Claire Merritt reports

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The most recent census 2021 puts the estimated number of unpaid carers at five million in England and Wales. This, together with ONS census data for Scotland and Northern Ireland, suggests that the number of unpaid carers across the UK is 5.7 million.

In particular, the rise of carers who have both younger dependants and elderly and infirm relatives is on the rise. They are known as the squeezed generation, or ‘generation care’.

One of the great challenges faced by the women fully engaging in workplaces is that historically women were (generally) not economically active, but engaged in the unpaid work of caring for the young and the old. However, with more and more women remaining in the workplace, especially with more support around menopause issues, this means that many employees are looking after the young and the old while working. 

Employers need to think carefully about the external pressures on staff. The issue of employees’ mental health has been highlighted in recent years, but now businesses are looking to see the triggers around those mental health issues.

Caring for the young is a demanding pursuit for both parents, whether they are living together or separately. It is therefore important that all types of family-friendly leave are implemented and supported. We already know about the ability to work flexibly and support for those who are on maternity, paternity, adoption or shared parental leave. However, there is a growing swathe of employees who are caring for the elderly or caring for both the young and the elderly.

The government has introduced a carer’s leave bill, which is designed to be a new statutory leave for those who have unpaid caring responsibilities. There was a government consultation through 2018 and 2019. This was a private member’s bill that introduced further flexibility of one week’s unpaid leave per year for employees who were providing, or arranging, care for a dependant with long-term care needs.

This bill was designed for those who have caring responsibilities for the elderly. This was passed through parliament in May 2023 but has not actually been implemented yet. Reports are that it will not be implemented before April 2024.

In addition to the uncertainty of when this will be implemented, these new rights actually provide very little leave for someone who is needing to put carers in place for an elderly relative. One week simply isn’t enough – but at least it is more than the current arrangement, which is only to take time off to care for dependants in an emergency. Furthermore, the right doesn’t attract any pay, so this will limit the uptake. 

The current law around taking time off to care for dependants in an emergency would apply to those with child or adult caring responsibilities. However, it literally only covers enough time to put that emergency care in place, which is obviously not suitable if you are trying to find long-term solutions for individuals. It is also an unpaid right. 

Best practice for employers is to really focus on the needs of individuals. Those employees who are the squeezed generation in between young and elderly need extra support. They need recognition that there has to be some flexibility to put arrangements in place.

There also needs to be an understanding of the toll that caring takes on the mental, and sometimes physical, health of the individual. The constant mental burden of ensuring that both children and the elderly are cared for needs to be recognised by managers, followed by an honest discussion with employees about how best to manage and support it.

Claire Merritt is a partner in the employment team at Paris Smith