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How Covid-19 shone a spotlight on working carers

16 Jul 2020 By Jenny Roper

Juggling a job with homeschooling during lockdown has given many a glimpse into what it’s like to care for someone while in full-time employment – so could coronavirus spur firms to offer more support?

The coronavirus crisis has opened our eyes to numerous things over the past few months. Notable among them for many people is the difficulty of juggling full-time care – and of course homeschooling – with a full-time job. But for many other workers, this is far from a new reality, and in fact they’re used to coping with an even more demanding balancing act: that of caring for an ill, elderly or disabled family member, partner or friend, while holding down a job.

A new report from the CIPD and the ESRC-funded ‘Sustainable Care: Connecting People and Systems’ research programme, based at the University of Sheffield, has found that almost 3.7 million employees in England and Wales are working carers, with 72 per cent working a full-time job, and 32 per cent providing 30 or more hours of care a week – so full-time care on top of a full-time role. “Working carers are people who help or look after a family member or friend who need care and support as a result of old age, physical illness, disability, mental health problems or addiction,” says Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD. “So this is another level to juggling work with caring for children; these responsibilities are more intense than that.”

The pandemic has by no means just given people a new appreciation for what it must be like to be a working carer, however. With the CIPD/University of Sheffield research finding that more than a quarter (28 per cent) of carers had not discussed this with anyone at work before Covid-19, the crisis has also no doubt opened the eyes of colleagues and employers alike to the very existence of such individuals in their workforces. “It’s likely a very large number of employees have not been able to work at normal capacity because they have been caring for relatives who have become unwell or providing additional care to relatives in higher-risk groups,” says Jason Heyes, co-author of the report and research development director for work, employment and organisations at the University of Sheffield. “I’m sure it’s revealed for the first time for some employers just how many of their staff have caring responsibilities.” 

McCartney agrees: “Organisations will have had to get to grips with those personal circumstances people are grappling with, because they will have asked them in discussion around whether they can work from home, or when considering the return to the physical workspace. So potentially for the first time they will have access to that information.” She says coronavirus will have added to the care burden for many – and indeed given others such responsibilities for the first time – with some community care facilities shutting down during the crisis, recovery from the illness an often lengthy process, and the Covid-related death of a family member potentially leaving partners or other relations unable to cope on their own.

And the burden even before the pandemic hit was significant – both for individuals and businesses. Unsurprisingly, given the number of people attempting to find time for effectively two full-time jobs, the report found 44 per cent of working carers struggle to combine their job and caring responsibilities, with 24 per cent considering giving up their job entirely because of this. Additionally, almost a third (30 per cent) had reduced their hours and a similar proportion are considering this; and 36 per cent had refused a job offer or promotion, or decided against applying for a job, because of their caring responsibilities. 

“People are coping essentially by eroding the amount of time they have for themselves,” says Heyes. The brain drain caused by this, in the form of compromised wellbeing and concentration levels – and loss of talent when people leave the workforce altogether – is significant, he says. Conversely, working carers who receive employer support are less likely to find it difficult to concentrate, to be considering reducing their hours or quitting their jobs, to turn down promotions or to take sick or unpaid leave, the research found. “If you can help an employee stay in work while they undertake caring responsibilities then you keep that valuable employee,” points out Mary Larkin, senior lecturer in health and social care and chair of the caring network at The Open University.

So what might such help entail? And will this be achievable for all employers? The desired support most popularly cited by working carers surveyed for the report – that of paid carers’ leave – sounds potentially cost prohibitive for many. But it’s much more helpful, says McCartney, than its slightly more commonly offered counterpart: unpaid carers’ leave.

While it is positive that the government is currently consulting on its pledge to offer carers an extra five days’ unpaid leave a year (with this expected to conclude in mid-August), the financial burden faced by carers means this won’t in reality be accessible for many, says McCartney. She points to Carers UK research showing two in five carers (39 per cent) are struggling to make ends meet, with 68 per cent using their own income or savings to cover the cost of care. Which is why the CIPD has lobbied government for five days of statutory paid carers’ leave annually instead – so government funded, with employers able to enhance this.

But some would argue a financial case can be made for stumping up for the whole cost of this even if the government doesn’t amend its proposal. This is exactly what Nationwide Building Society – winner of this year’s Working Families’ Best Practice Best for Carers and Eldercare award – decided last year, when it analysed two years of people data to form a business case for paid carers’ leave. “Carers will generally take more sick leave than others because of the strain they’re under. So the figures demonstrated we were paying people to be off anyway,” says Philip Farrelly, co-chair of Nationwide’s carers’ network, explaining that while off carers nonetheless felt incredibly guilty and worried about “cheating” the sick leave system – so paid leave was a cost-neutral exercise that also eliminated this anxiety.

The other most popular forms of support cited by the CIPD/University of Sheffield report – flexible working and access to, and time with, a telephone to make care-related calls – are typically even more affordable, points out McCartney. As are other vital steps such as ensuring the business has a definition of ‘working carer’ and a carers’ policy. “If there isn’t a clear definition, quite often people won’t see themselves as a carer; they’re just doing their duty or doing what they can,” she says, explaining that then people don’t come forward for support. With a carers’ policy, the important bit, she says, is ensuring people actually know about it and what they’re entitled to. 

“One thing we say is these policies are there to be used not to be kept in a glass box,” agrees Farrelly, explaining the importance of line manager training around them and other awareness-raising activity such as roadshows. A carers’ network is also a pretty cost-free step, he adds, explaining the power of connecting various related employee networks. However, McCartney says: “The caveat is, while some people find it really valuable to talk to other people who are struggling, for others work might be an escape.”

It’s also helpful to network with other similar organisations, says Larkin. But general awareness raising is perhaps the most vital activity, she adds, given the stigma many still feel (worrying their caring responsibilities will be viewed by employers as a sign of compromised commitment). Everyone has a role in making these responsibilities visible and accepted, says Larkin: “It’s that cultural change that is so important. I’ve been in meetings where people say: ‘I have to go at 3.30 because of childcare,’ but you rarely hear someone say: ‘I’ve got to go at 3.30 because I’ve got to put my mum’s glaucoma drops in.’”

There’s still a long way to go, then, with UK employers offering markedly different levels of support. But coronavirus could actually help things along. The status of caring in general – along with several other key worker occupations – has after all been elevated. And the accidental large-scale home working experiment of recent months being declared a surprise success will hopefully improve the plight of carers craving more flexibility. “I hope now we’ll see much more open-mindedness about flexible working in general,” says McCartney. “Home working is not actually always flexible, because often you’re working longer hours. So I hope it will raise awareness that there are all kinds of flexibilities.” 

She adds that she hopes recent months have also demonstrated the power of testing something out – along with how helpful a lot of working carers support also is for the wider employee population.

For Nationwide, the pandemic has demonstrated beyond doubt why supporting working carers is not only the right thing to do, but also good for business. The discretionary effort staff have put in as a result of employer support such as that for working carers has repaid itself “tenfold”, says Tracy Conwell, director of employee relations. “We’ve managed to keep open the vast majority of our branches; we have not stopped doing business. Yes, that’s because our senior people have been able to facilitate and come up with the different packages, but it’s our people who deliver it. 

“So the support and faith you put in people pays absolute dividends.”  

Further information

Attendance allowance This helps with extra costs if someone has a disability severe enough that they need someone to help look after them. 
Find out more at gov.uk/attendance-allowance

Carer’s assessment Those with caring responsibilities can ask their local social services department to conduct an assessment to check they’re getting the right support. 
Find out more on the NHS website

Carer’s allowance An employee could be entitled to £66.15 a week if they care for someone at least 35 hours a week, and they get certain benefits. In Scotland, they may be eligible to receive the carer’s allowance supplement. 
Find out more at gov.uk/carers-allowance or on the Scottish government website

For employers

A carer passport is a record that can be passed on as someone changes managers to ensure they receive the correct support. This website provides resources and guidance on setting up a scheme. 
Visit carerpassport.uk 

Acas gives employees and employers free, impartial advice on workplace rights, rules and best practice. Visit acas.org.uk

Employers for Carers is Carers UK’s membership forum and service for employers. Its key purpose is to ensure employers have the support to retain and manage employees with caring responsibilities. 
Visit employersforcarers.org

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