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Work plays a huge part in our health and wellbeing. However, it’s not simply about having a job. Our working conditions, the level of support provided by our employer and our work-life balance are also important.

This is especially true for the 3 million workers in the UK who also care for loved ones with disabilities or serious health conditions. With our ageing population and workforce, and growing pressures on services and families, it’s never been more important to support carers in the workplace, in order to retain skilled, healthy and productive staff.

What are the impacts of caring and working?

Our family members and friends are living longer with illness or disability, and more and more of us are looking after them. Whether it’s round-the-clock or for a few hours a week, in our own home or miles away, caring can have a huge effect on our working lives.

For some carers, it’s sudden: someone you love is taken ill or has an accident, your child is born with a disability. For others, caring creeps up unnoticed: your parents can’t manage on their own any longer or your partner’s health gets gradually worse. Many of us may be stretched to the limit, especially if we’re caring and working.

Evidence from Carers UK and our business forum Employers for Carers shows that caring can have adverse impacts on working carers’ health if they’re unsupported. Carers often describe their lives as being ‘turned upside down’ when a crisis occurs.

In research launched during Carers Week in June, almost three-quarters (72%) of carers in the UK said they had suffered mental ill health, while well over half (61%) said their physical health had worsened. 

Financial pressures can also add to the mix: over 2 million people have given up work to care, and 3 million have reduced working hours, often not out of choice but due to lack of support from employers or care services.

The wider consequences

Caring doesn’t only impact families but also employers and the economy. The cost of not addressing carer support has been estimated to be £3.5bn a year to businesses due to absenteeism and increased staff turnover, and £5.3bn to the wider economy.

With a quarter of women and a sixth of men aged 50-64 now having caring responsibilities and an ageing workforce due to later state pensions, retaining workforce skills and talent will become ever more crucial for employers and the economy.

What can employers do?

So, what can employers do to ensure that workplace conditions, work-life balance and support systems support a healthy life for carers?

Whether your organisation is large or small, here are some steps you can take to help both your staff and your business:

  • put in place provisions which can support staff who may have caring responsibilities, including flexible working and care leave
  • publicise your policies and practices which are relevant to caring so they are understood by managers and staff
  • educate managers by including information about caring situations and workplace support in training materials and guidance
  • encourage staff and managers to start a conversation about caring, so employees recognise themselves as carers and come forward for support
  • connect carers in your workplace by identifying a point of contact or setting up a staff carers network to enable them to support one another
  • engage with forums like Employers for Carers to benefit from practical guidance, resources and support for HR and line managers
  • use opportunities such as Carers Week and Carers Rights Day to raise awareness of support available both in and outside the workplace.

Companies with carer-friendly policies

Here are a couple of examples from Employers for Carers:

  • Aviva’s carers policy offers up to 35 hours paid carers leave a year for planned events and 35 hours for emergencies. Carers can also request up to four weeks unpaid leave a year (and 18 weeks in total, like statutory parental leave). The policy was launched as part of Aviva’s wider employee wellbeing programme, Wellbeing@Aviva.
  • Centrica offers an innovative, long-standing leave policy of up to one month ‘matched’ paid care leave in addition to annual leave. If an employee needs time off for caring, they can take half of this as annual leave and Centrica will match the remaining half as care leave. Feedback from line managers shows that staff who have used this are more productive, adding weight to the business case.

Whether as colleagues or managers, we can all play our part in reaching out to carers earlier. Ensuring that they get the right support, in the right place, at the right time will help us to retain healthy and resilient workers.

Katherine Wilson is Head of Employers for Carers at Carers UK. Connect with Carers UK on Twitter.

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