Supporting carers can be good for business

Employers are coming under increasing pressure from all quarters to offer flexible working to staff, says Amanda Wilkinson, editor of Employee Benefits. The green lobby believes it will help ease congestion, while new legislation in the form of the Work and Families Act 2006 is imposing extra duties on companies to embrace the concept.

At the end of last year, employers were urged by Sir Rod Eddington, author of the recent Treasury-backed report on transport, to allow staff to work flexible hours or to work from home, in order to help ease congestion on the trains and roads.

Some firms, like BT, already use flexible working arrangements as part of plans to become more environmentally-friendly.

But the positive effect on the environment is not the only reason for employers to start taking flexible working more seriously.

From April, employers will have to consider requests for flexible working from employees who have elderly parents, a disabled relative or someone who is simply living in their home under the terms of the Work and Families Act 2006.

The new legislation builds on the Employment Act 2002, which gave the right to request to work flexibly to working parents with children who are aged less than six years or up to 18 years and disabled. The Work and Families Act 2006 extends that right to employees with caring responsibilities for their husband or wife, a partner or civil partner, a near relative, or for someone who lives at the same address.

Three million people currently juggle their work with caring responsibilities, be it for a child, an aged parent, or a disabled relative, according to Carers UK. And that figure is likely to increase due to a population that is ageing, the emergence of alternative and smaller family structures, and a rising retirement age. Carers UK estimates that by 2037 the number of adult carers in the UK will have grown from six to nine million. Employers will no longer be able to ignore the changing demographics of the nation and, with it, the increased burden on members of their workforce.

Being a carer is a responsibility that could come out of the blue. It can also end up having a major impact on the smooth running of an organisation, as many employees will believe they have little choice but to give up work because of their new role as a carer. For an organisation which has spent time and money recruiting and training staff, it makes little sense to lose a hard-worker and then go to the expense of recruiting another.

Even if an employee decides to continue to work they are likely to be faced with new pressures, which may affect their productivity, time-keeping and absence levels – that is, unless measures can be put in place to help them juggle their roles as worker and carer.

The right to request flexible working should help them to do this. It should also help employers keep a tighter control on absenteeism and to manage the workload more effectively.