Feature – Caring for carers

In summary

While there is legislation in place for parents of young children to request flexible working, those with responsibilities such as eldercare are not catered for. In order to retain people who juggle work with caring, employers need to be as supportive as possible, offering options such as flexible working and allowing paid time off for emergencies. Case study: Lloyds TSB

Article in full

Caring responsibilities have become a major issue for the UK workforce, forcing employers to give serious thought to what they can offer their staff to help ease the burden. Of the UK’s six million carers, an estimated 1.6 million of them are also holding down jobs. And, over the next decade, 13 million more people can expect to become carers. While many existing family-friendly policies are aimed at parents of young children, these rarely address the needs of staff that care for older or disabled children, sick partners, or elderly parents.

So as the population ages and the number of people with caring responsibilities continues to grow, employers need to look carefully at what else they can offer staff if they are to have a sustainable workforce. Recent legislation has provided relief for some. In April 2003, the Flexible Working Regulations enabled parents of children under six to request flexible hours in order to care for their children. Practical benefits such as childcare vouchers, available through employers, offset some of the costs. But for a great many other employees, care issues go beyond childcare for the under sixes.

Their ability to balance the demands of their job and family responsibilities depends on finding a sympathetic and supportive employer. "Working carers are not necessarily looking for large-scale practical gestures of help," says Maggie Meade-King, head of communications at Working Families, an organisation that provides support to working parents and carers. "Very few [want] companies providing nurseries or eldercare facilities – instead what they want is support and understanding. If employers are flexible, their employees will also be flexible, and that can only benefit everyone." According to a new report by think-tank The Work Foundation entitled Changing demographics, there is overwhelming support from the UK population for making flexible working available to everyone. Respondents cast off the negative image that flexible workers were unproductive or unsuccessful. The study also revealed that, along with flexibility, people wanted to work fewer hours.

The growing number of dual income households means that someone must still care for children, while eldercare is expected to become an even greater issue over the next few years. Over two-thirds of respondents believed that career structures need to allow for time out without damaging career prospects and that organisations need to change the long hours culture. Alexandra Jones, a senior researcher at The Work Foundation who co-wrote the report, says: "Our survey respondents have demonstrated that they are looking to their employers and the government to provide a working climate that enables them to make changes without impacting on their career success or their earnings potential. With the labour market becoming more female, older and more diverse, these are growing demands that the government is already starting to respond to – and that employers need to sit up and listen to. The UK’s demographics are already changing: the workplace cannot afford not to."

Employees with caring responsibilities may take some comfort from the prime minister’s recent announcement that carers should have the same right as working parents to request flexible working. Predictably, this was given a cool reception by business leaders, but while the government works on the details of the policy, organisations such as The Princess Royal Trust for Carers, a provider of carers support services, are demonstrating to employers that supporting carers at work doesn’t have to be an administrative or financial nightmare.

Public relations manager, Cheryl Lofts, says: "Care requirements, whether they are for children, elderly parents, or a sick partner, are often unpredictable. A lot of employers simply don’t realise the impact of a sudden care issue arising." With good management training, bosses can be more helpful and sympathetic, and more proactive in the way they demonstrate support, for example, by asking the carers in their workforce what extra help or support they might need and providing them with access to information on local services. Some companies organise carers’ groups and forums on site, where staff can talk over key issues and share information. "The smallest things can make the biggest difference. For example, allowing someone with acute care issues a more convenient parking space, which doesn’t cost or inconvenience anyone, yet can really benefit the member of staff who needs to use it in an emergency," adds Lofts. There is also a gender issue to consider.

According to The Work Foundation research, men and women’s expectations of how they would like to work when they have young children are significantly different. While both sexes agree that not working is not ideal (only 17% of women and 5% of men say they would like not to have to work at this stage of their lives), 70% of men prefer full-time work compared with 15% of women. In fact, children appear to come second to elderly relatives for men, who are far more likely to see flexible part-time working as ideal when they have eldercare responsibilities than when they have young children. "This suggests that both men and women still see caring for young children as something that requires women to change their working patterns, and not men. When it comes to eldercare, however, the responsibilities have a more equal balance," explains The Work Foundation’s Jones.

For many men, though, asking for time off or a change in their hours to care for a member of their family is still a taboo subject in male-dominated sectors such as banking and finance. "A major culture change needs to happen within these organisations if men are to feel comfortable asking for support because they have care demands. It has to become acceptable for both sexes," says Working Families’ Meade-King. While some employers remain sceptical about the business benefits of better provision for working carers, others are seeing the results at first hand. Last year, Ros Micklem, principal of Cardonald College in Glasgow, was awarded the title Britain’s Best Boss as a result of her efforts to implement flexible working practices for her 600 members of staff. Policies such as paid parental and emergency leave have seen turnover and absenteeism remain at low levels. "If everyone took their full quota of three working days’ paid leave for domestic events, then, yes, the costs would be huge. But the fact is, people don’t take anything like their entitlement, and the days that were taken were more than compensated by [a lessening of] sickness absence," she says.

Translated into productivity, the implications are clear, and there are signs that employers are recognising the changing needs of both employees and the business by embracing flexible working practices. Some organisations have already taken the step of extending the request flexible working to all members of staff. But those who don’t are failing to see the bigger picture, says The Princess Royal Trust for Carers’ Lofts. "Working carers who aren’t supported by [bosses] may be forced to give up their jobs. And that simply puts the costs of recruitment and retraining back on the employer."

Practical help that employers can offer

• Flexible leave and working arrangements, a reduction in hours or a career break without financial penalties. • Paid time off for emergencies. • Childcare vouchers. • Option of working from home, compressed hours – five days’ hours compressed into four – and evening or weekend working. • Identifying carers within the organisation and finding out what they need. • Providing access to information and advice for staff with caring responsibilities. • Promoting carers’ policies to staff. • Establishing trust between managers and employees, enabling working carers to feel comfortable in asking for support.


Lloyds TSB employs around 75,000 people and offers a broad range of policies aimed at providing greater flexibility for staff. With such a large workforce, care issues are extremely diverse, and policies and practices at the high street banking firm reflect this. Sally Evans, senior manager equality and diversity, says: "We have a lot of staff with care responsibilities, which are generally easy to deal with. Culturally, care issues can be less easy to talk about. Research we did two years ago showed that among the Asian community, care is a huge issue, and more so for men than for women. You have to be aware of the sensitivities around this. "On the whole, what people want is financial support where possible, for example, the childcare vouchers that are available through our flexible benefits programme, but more importantly, [they must know] that they can ask for help and support when they need it."