How can employers do more to support eldercare in the workplace?


Need to know:

  • Employers are increasingly finding ways to support workers who are juggling jobs, children, and looking after elderly parents.
  • A new era of flexible working is making life easier for carers. For employers that want to do more, concierge-style support programmes are an avenue to explore.
  • The government has mooted a year’s unpaid leave for carers. But with the government in a weak position, experts are sceptical as to whether plans will go ahead, and whether they ultimately solve the problem.

The UK has weathered a long period of austerity, governed by a Conservative party that believes in personal responsibility and minimal state intervention. Accordingly, the burden is increasingly falling on individuals when it comes to looking after their ageing parents.

Ben Black, director at My Family Care, says: “There are more and more people with elderly parents to worry about. If [a person] becomes dependent, there is no infrastructure in place. That is a massive shock to people.”

A whole generation of employees could be putting their own health at risk, caring for their parents and small children while juggling careers. However, some employers are introducing a wide range of measures to support staff with caring responsibilities.

Eldercare 3.0
The age of the smartphone means that flexible working is much more accepted than it once was, making life easier for carers.

“From a financial point of view, if [employers] give people a little empathy and support, and enough flexibility to manage outside work, they are going to pay [them] loads of times over in terms of engagement, retention and productivity,” says Black.

The stigma is also disappearing around taking time off work to look after parents, says Iain McMath, chief executive officer at Sodexo Benefits and Reward Services. “People talk about children, because it’s positive. With adult care, it isn’t always fun. It’s, ‘I need to take my mother to the chiropodist, I need to see my father with Alzheimer’s’. People don’t talk about it. HR is becoming more supportive of it. Before now it was ‘your problem, you deal with it’.”

There are a range of steps employers can take to support carers. “The first is identifying who the carers are,” says Black. “Setting up an eldercare network at work doesn’t cost anything, but recognises the problem. The second bit is changing the working culture, recognising flexibility. [Employers] have been doing it for working mothers for ages, this is an extension of that.”

A supportive culture
Changing workplace culture starts with educating managers; fostering trust, understanding and better teamwork, says McMath. There can sometimes be a jobsworth culture at the cost of compassion among managers, he explains. “Managers don’t want to be thought to be not managing teams effectively or being seen to give preferential treatment. It is very much engaging the team with the issue. It’s getting the team to be more of a team.”

Positive reinforcement is one way to change behaviour around eldercare support. “There are teams that will nominate their manager [for a workplace award] for looking after them,” says McMath.

Buddy systems are one practical way to help employees with caring responsibilities. “If I have a buddy in my team, I can work out a way of covering what I need to do,” he adds.

Some employers may also find that introducing a consultancy service to help staff find emergency back-up care for their parents or even to help them to find great longer-term carers or care homes, pays dividends. These concierge-style services are growing in popularity, according to Black and McMath. These can be employer-funded, employee-funded or a mixture of both.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are another way of providing support, says Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance. “They can provide advice and support on eldercare and childcare alike. [An employee] gives them a brief and they can tell [them] what facilities are available, from nurseries to residential homes. These are included on all group income protection programmes across the industry.”

Turning to technology
Smart new inventions can also help employee-carers to relax. The 3rings Plug, for example, can be used with a range of appliances in the home of an elderly loved one in order to provide reassurance to family members. When an elderly parent switches on their kettle and makes a cup of tea, family members receive a text message letting them know that they are okay. If the parent does not switch on the kettle, they also receive an alert.

Entrepreneur Steve Purdham’s mother, Iris, was 82 when he came up with the idea for the 3rings plug. “Everyone in the UK, especially in my mum’s generation, the first thing they do in the morning is make a cup of tea,” says Purdham. “We all have that routine mechanism. The idea of the plug came from there.”

Employers could educate their staff about the fact that such products are available.

Carer wellbeing
Self-care is often the forgotten piece of the jigsaw when it comes to supporting employees with caring responsibilities.

When an employee is a carer, it can be easy to forget about their own wellbeing, says Peter Blencowe, managing director at Bluecrest Health Screening. “When [an employee is] under a lot of time and work pressure, accessing benefits can be really difficult,” he adds. “Responsible employers need to make it easier for staff to access health support services.”

To support this, employers looking to appoint a healthcare provider should look for those that make convenience a priority, for instance, those that offer a 24-hour GP helpline, says Blencowe. “We have all experienced how difficult it can be to get a GP appointment at a convenient time, [so] it is all about flexibility and convenience for staff,” he explains.

No pay, no gain
From prime minister Theresa May’s controversial ‘dementia tax’ manifesto commitment to a green paper on social care due to be published later in 2017, the government has been considering a range of options to help carers. In May, the Conservatives made headlines with the pledge to give people the statutory right to take a year of unpaid leave to care for a loved one.

Most experts are sceptical as to whether a year’s unpaid leave is the right solution. With employers now more open than ever before to flexible working, it begs the question: is a year’s unpaid leave even necessary? Finally, in straitened financial times, the notion of taking unpaid leave could be unappealing.

My Family Care’s Black says: “If the government is really keen to do something, it should give any carer, whether they are looking after a child or an elderly parent, a tax break as long as they are working.”

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Meanwhile, McMath is sceptical that any pre-election promises can now be relied upon. “We have a lame duck government and I don’t think anything else is going to be done. [It doesn’t] have the manpower or the intellectual space with Brexit negotiations to do anything.”

With concerns that the government may not develop or prioritise support for carers any time soon, employers may see demand increase to offer more avenues of assistance to their staff.