Britain’s population is ageing, and based on the demographic forecast, the number of carers in the UK is set to increase by 3.4 million (circa 60%). How can employers do their bit to ensure that caring responsibilities and career orientation are not a binary choice?

There are close to 7 million carers in the UK, over 4 million of whom are of working age. 1 in 5 carers gives up employment in order to fulfil their caring duties, yet over half of carers who don’t work report that they would like to do so. More needs to be done to facilitate flexibility in the workplace, not only for the ‘sandwich generation’ of today (who shoulder the responsibility of raising families, caring for elderly or infirm parents, and keeping their careers on track), but for generations to follow. So how can employers do their bit to ensure that caring responsibilities and career orientation are not a binary choice?

Britain’s population is ageing, and based on the demographic forecast, the number of carers in the UK is set to increase by 3.4 million (circa 60%). The problem hardly needs spelling out. We are living longer (on the whole, good news!). But the infrastructure to support this is already woefully inadequate, and the demographic statistics show that the problem is only going to gather momentum. Part of the onus of responsibility rests with politicians and public services in providing the right policy and resources. But employers have their part to play too, and the evidence suggests that bosses need to seriously step up to the plate in order for working carers to continue on with their careers alongside their caring duties.

In economic terms, working carers are a valuable asset. They contribute £132 billion per year to the UK economy (Carers UK: Valuing Carers 2015), and save the government an estimated £119 billion in paid care services (Carers UK & The University of Leeds, 2011). A staggering figure, particularly when one considers that this is more than the whole budget of the NHS (Dr Sarah Jarvis). But the cost of carers leaving employment is £1.3 billion per year in public expenditure alone (Carer’s Allowance, and loss of potential income tax revenue), not to mention the direct loss to businesses (National Institute For Health, 2012). If the moral obligation to look after working carers is not incentive enough in its own right, the financial imperative is hard to ignore.

Events such as Carers Week (held annually in the summer) help to highlight the importance of the wider issue of caring for carers (and the part we all have to play in that), inspire a renewed sense of purpose behind tackling the issue, and showcase those organisations whose agility in adapting their practices has paid dividends for both the employee and the employer.

Maybe the issues surrounding working carers don’t affect you at the moment. Hopefully they never will. It isn’t after all, a planned outcome, and nor it is a circumstance anyone arrives at with any prior skills or training. But since 3 in 5 people will be carers at some point in their lives in the UK, it’s odds on that it could be you one day. And come that day, how would you hope to be treated? Caring brings with it plenty of physical, mental, emotional and financial hurdles along the way. Sometimes it is a long term responsibility; occasionally it is more transient. Either way, it’s a balancing act alongside all of life’s other responsibilities. Against that context, a little bit of compassion and flexibility from one’s employer goes a long way to reducing some of the burden. According to the National Institute For Health (2012), the trigger for resignation seems to be pulled most commonly when care is provided for 10 or more hours per week. Let’s look, then, at some of the do’s and don’ts for employers in managing and supporting working carers.


Give proper consideration to flexible working hours. And by ‘proper’ we mean looking at it from the point of view of ‘why the heck not?’. Granted, there are some jobs which genuinely require a physical presence on site between certain business hours. But there are many other roles which can be performed as effectively from home, within compressed hours, or via a job share, as within the standard 9 to 5 office hours. So, before you dismiss a flexibility request, give it the consideration it deserves. And, if you’re still nervous, take comfort in the fact that you can agree a period of review, and revert back to the previous standard working arrangements if it genuinely isn’t working out. Flexible working is one of the key adjustments that can make a significant difference to carers ability to juggle their responsibilities.

Consider setting up staff networks. Building a community of support in the workplace can be an essential lifeline. There’s nothing like comparing notes with people who share the same or similar circumstances. As well as providing a level of emotional support, employee networks can prove a great tool for sharing information about support services, coping strategies and other such resources.

Support relevant charities. Nothing nails your corporate colours to the wall more than overtly sponsoring, fundraising or supporting a cause. And if that cause resonates directly with the experience of some of your employees, there’s an instant sense of inclusion as a result. Whether you have a CSR initiative and strategy or not, there’s no time like the present (especially this week!) to get in touch with charities and volunteer groups and find out how you can offer support. There are options to suit all budgets and all sizes of business. From payroll giving and cause related marketing (donating a percentage of your sales), through to volunteer schemes and employee fundraising initiatives.

Invest in appropriate Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). EAPs are employee benefit programmes intended to help employees deal with personal problems which might adversely affect their work performance, health and well-being. Many working carers face financial struggles, stress, exhaustion and anxiety. The interventional support offered by EAPs via assessment, counselling and referrals has benefits for both the employee and the employer in eliminating or reducing stress factors, introducing coping strategies, raising morale, and, in turn, positively impacting productivity.

Be accessible and recognise the signs when people need help and support. Great line managers know their people. When performance dips, attendance becomes patchy or employees start acting ‘out of character’ the first step should be to establish the cause. The next step should be to offer appropriate levels of support and compassion, and, whilst you may not be able to alter the circumstances at home, as an employer you can take steps to ensure that the workplace is not adding undue pressure. You cannot and should not force employees to share and open up, but equally you should ensure that those who need to ask for support or advice feel that they can do so without being judged or labelled.


Make requesting flexibility a taboo subject. Every business has its working culture. What message does yours send to your employees? If your business operates on a culture of ‘presenteeism’, or if the words ‘part timer’ ring in the ears of those leaving even vaguely on the dot of 5.30pm, you may need to do some work to address a more sensitive and inclusive approach. It may just be well intended office banter, but to the likes of the working carer, or the working parent, it is an Achilles heel.

Force working carers to use annual leave to fulfil their caring duties. Everyone needs a break, and using annual leave to support hospital appointments or emergency care most definitely won’t tick the ‘R & R’ box. At best it will result in an employee who is exhausted and stressed; almost certainly, productivity and engagement levels will suffer; and at worst, it may ultimately trigger their resignation. Regular or ongoing circumstances such as hospital visits should, where possible, be supported via flexible working arrangements. As for emergency care, all employees have the right to reasonable time off during working hours for dependants, in order to deal with unforeseen matters and emergencies. There is no legal right to be paid; however, you may consider offering a contractual right to pay under the terms and conditions of employment.

Assume that the challenges for all carers are the same. Every carer’s experience will be different. The needs of one person with caring responsibilities will vary considerably from those of another. And they may also change (possibly unexpectedly) over time, as the condition and needs of their dependent relative alters. Keep the channels of communication open, and ensure regular conversations to re-assess needs and ensure that the support you are providing as an employer is aligned with needs.

Assume that carers are not interested in career progression. Ambition doesn’t vanish just because of challenging personal circumstances. There are many carers who remain just as focussed on their career goals, and with a little flexibility and support from their employer, there is no reason they should be excluded from consideration for new challenges and promotions. Don’t take career progression decisions out of employee’s hands based on assumptions about what they will or will not be able to take on.

After all, shouldn’t the carer’s role be as valued in the workplace as it is at home?

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