How can employers ease financial burdens for carers?

Need to know:

  • Working carers face unique financial challenges, including receiving lower pay if they have to reduce their hours, and catering to them is vital for retaining key talent.
  • Offering paid carers’ leave is important, as it ensures that employees do not have to choose between using up annual leave or taking it unpaid.
  • Working carers may appreciate benefits that mitigate the costs of living, particularly if they are the sole breadwinner in a household.

Working carers face numerous financial burdens, which are only exacerbated if they have to shift to part-time hours or dip into their savings to provide for dependants. Employers should take notice of these, if not for the sake of employees’ overall wellbeing, then at least to retain key talent.

According to the 2011 UK Census, the peak age at which individuals are likely to have caring responsibilities is between 45 and 64. This means that carers are most like to occupy senior roles, says Heather Carey, deputy director at The Work Foundation.

“[They] have developed a huge amount of skills and experience throughout their careers; businesses simply can’t afford to lose people, not least because we’re moving in to a really tight labour market,” she explains.

Financial responsibilities

According to the Caring and family finances inquiry UK report, published by Carers UK in February 2014, three in 10 carers (30%) had seen a drop of £20,000 or more a year in household income because of their caring responsibilities.

This could be due to the need to reduce their hours, or even leave work entirely, to better accommodate caring responsibilities. Carers may also feel they must avoid promotions or accept lower-paid jobs, due to a sense that they might be seen as unreliable, or lack the time to dedicate to a demanding role, says Heather Beach, head of carer services at Action for Family Carers.

Carers may have more financial outlays, in addition to the loss of earnings. These could include higher food costs and utility bills, as well as the costs of medical equipment, travel and other expenses associated with hospital visits for an elderly or disabled loved one.

A reduction in working hours will also impact on employees’ savings pension contributions. Lizzie Rapley, partnerships and development officer at Working for Carers, says: “A lot of carers use their savings to make ends meet, which, for their long-term financial health, is not good.”

A flexible approach

The key to supporting working carers with financial burdens is to empower them to remain in the workforce. For this to succeed, employers must show awareness and understanding of the challenges they face, in addition to trusting staff with autonomy.

Flexible working, remote working and flexible leave arrangements that can be taken at short notice are useful support mechanisms, as is making flexibility a day-one right.

“If [employers] don’t have a culture where it’s acceptable for people to work flexibly or take flexible leave, then [the organisation] is going to lose valuable talent and the carer is likely to be out of employment and then in extreme financial hardship,” says Claire McCartney, inclusion and diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Benefits for low-earners

Employers should promote financial education and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to working carers, as these can provide support on how to manage money, signpost free services from charities, or suggest counselling services.

Benefits designed to support low earners are also applicable, notes Carey. This includes help mitigate housing costs, such as rental deposit schemes, rent subsidies and energy-switching schemes, or benefits that reduce travel expenses, for example season ticket loans, cycle-to-work schemes and public transport subsidies.

Employers should also encourage take-up of voluntary benefits schemes that offer retail and supermarket discounts, to help employees with everyday costs.

McCartney says: “[It is about] looking across the whole spectrum of needs that carers have, including some of the financial challenges that they experience, and trying to create a whole support network.”

Policies and practices

A dedicated carers’ policy that includes paid leave, where possible, is an important element of any approach to retaining and supporting those with dependants. This ensures that staff do not have to use annual leave to manage their responsibilities, and can instead use holiday days as intended: to recharge their own health and wellbeing.

With concrete policies as a foundation, employers should also go about fostering an open workplace culture, in which individuals feel able to talk openly about their needs.

Staff forums or networks, supported by internal champions, can facilitate peer-to-peer advice. “It’s about giving staff the time and space to socialise so that they can support each other; that’s a good way to encourage staff to feel that they are able to bring that part of their identity into work,” says Rapley.

Question and answer sessions with the HR director could help working carers navigate the policies that may be of use them, while employee networks might also source guest speakers to deliver sessions around financial challenges.

Carey concludes: “The best way that employers can support [working carers] with their financial concerns is by understanding who they are, what their circumstances are, what constraints they face; that’s about having an environment where employee voice is valued, where there is support in place, those care-friendly policies. That creates a process of communication that enables businesses to offer the right mix of support and benefits in ways that working carers will most value them.”