Energy giant Centrica is to offer all employees globally up to six weeks of paid carers’ leave, made up of an initial 10 days paid carers’ leave followed by another two weeks of discretionary leave, matched with two weeks of annual leave. Employees will also be able to request flexible working from day one of becoming a carer, including reduced working hours or home working.
The company has developed a support network of fellow carers, a free assistance and advice line and trained on-site mental health workers. Alongside the changes to its internal policies and in an unprecedented move, Centrica has written to Britain’s 100 biggest employers urging them to consider adopting similar policies.
Carers are defined as those who care, on an unpaid basis, for a friend or family member who is unable to care for themselves, usually due to old age, disability or mental health issues. Centrica estimates that one in seven people juggle work with caring commitments and 600 people a day give up work as a result of caring.
Some argue it is incumbent on employers to think of ways in which to keep up with these changing demands on employee time and energy to attract and retain a diverse workforce. All this comes against the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week and an increasing awareness of the provision of increased support and benefits for those struggling to stay afloat.
How does it compare to existing arrangements?
If carers’ leave, in a model similar to that posed by Centrica, was to be granted statutory footing, it would join a significant list of existing ‘paid leave categories’, including sick leave, maternity/paternity/adoption and holiday leave, as well as lesser-known categories such as the new parental bereavement leave due to come into force in April 2020.
The category of leave which is probably most closely connected to Centrica’s proposal (although generally not paid) is time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. A dependant is defined as a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on the employee for care. However, this type of leave is only available in an emergency, with an employee who knew about the situation beforehand being ineligible, making it of limited value for carers.
Centrica’s generous new policy is likely to boast a myriad of consequential benefits, from reducing burnout to increasing retention rates, as well as tackling issues such as sudden unexpected absences in the workforce, absenteeism and presenteeism (turning up to work but not performing to the required standard because of ill health or exhaustion). It is a strong PR move and, with millennials making up a growing proportion of the workforce, faces head-on the likely reality that demands for flexible, employee-friendly policies will increase rather than fade.
As more women stay in or return to work after childbirth, both parents find themselves with increased childcare responsibilities, and an ageing population means unpaid care for struggling parents is a fact of life for many. With competing demands on employee time, businesses that can adapt to and support this may find they manage to retain and recruit the best workers, while also maintaining a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.
However, while many employers may consider implementing something similar, especially in the energy sector so as to compete on recruitment, for many employers this is neither feasible nor attractive. And there is no need – in law, at present – for them to do so.
Katherine Newman is an associate and Hans-Christian Mehrens a trainee solicitor at Faegre Baker Daniels