Supporting carers in the workplace: why the voluntary sector should be leading the way

Supporting carers in the workforce contributes to better financial stability for the carer and improved productivity for the employer, writes Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, and the voluntary sector should be leading the way 

Juggling work and caring unpaid for a loved one who is older, disabled or seriously ill can be a challenging balancing act – it’s a lot to handle but many of us do it, particularly those in their 40s and 50s. Research published by Carers UK this month shows almost five million people in the UK are juggling work and caring responsibilities – that’s one in seven of the workforce and disproportionately more women than men. In fact, one third more women than men have given up work to provide care unpaid, equating to 1.6 million women.

With our ageing population and the need to work for longer, support for carers in the workplace is becoming an increasingly important issue for employers. Supporting carers contributes to better financial stability for the carer and improved productivity for the employer.

The financial impact of caring can be drastic if the stress of juggling caring responsibilities with work becomes too much. Employees caring alongside work may miss out if they feel reluctant to accept a promotion or pick up extra hours because of their concerns about managing more alongside caring.  Some choose to reduce their hours, meaning their income is limited to what they can manage. Others, as our report showed, have to quit their job to care for their loved one – sometimes entering serious financial hardship – as they feel there is no alternative, which presumably in many cases means there was no support at work. We know that a staggering 600 people give up work every day to care, taking with them talent and sometimes years of experience.

So why should the voluntary sector be leading the way in supporting carers in the workplace? Women make up about two-thirds of the voluntary sector workforce (65%) meaning if more women are leaving work to care then, put simply, it’s in our interests to care for the carers. We need to keep the skills and knowledge in our organisations and we don’t need the additional recruitment and training costs of replacing people who, if we provided a flexible working environment, the right benefits and paid and unpaid care leave, we could keep throughout and beyond their caring journey.

Carers UK wants to see better workplace rights for carers. We are urging the government to introduce five to 10 days of paid care leave, as well as the option to request flexible working from day one of starting a job. There’s evidence for this in our own sector –when asked, employees rated a right to paid care leave more highly than private sector employees, with 85% feeling that it was either very or fairly important compared to 80% of all workers. As a sector we shouldn’t need the law to change to recognise and support carers by creating a carer friendly workplace: we should be leading by example.

Our sector is about helping and supporting those most in need and that should start with our own staff. It makes practical sense, financial sense and provides us with the opportunity of leading the way in overcoming one of the most rapidly growing challenges across our population that will touch most people at some point in their lives, often unexpectedly. We need to show leadership and not see it as an inconvenience. Caring will probably affect all of us on some scale in our lives. Maybe you are caring today and recognise the challenges that juggling work and care brings – but as with all good things in our sector we should not have to experience it personally to support, champion and yes empathise, because carers in our workplaces need our collective leadership.

As well as offering flexibility and paid care leave, charities can join Carers UK’s Employers for Carers scheme which gives practical assistance to help support and retain carers in the workplace. The platform not only provides digital resources but offers email, telephone and face to face support sharing good practice and exchanging knowledge. Go to https://www.employersforcarers.org/ for more information.

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