Sue Yeandle: How can employers support staff with caring responsibilities?  

It’s a growing issue. In 2020, England and Wales had 3.7 million working carers according to the Supporting working carers: how employers and employees can benefit report, published in June 2020 by the University of Sheffield and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Numbers continue to rise. Managing paid work and unpaid care can be tough. Care needs may be long-term and stable or may fluctuate day by day. Appointments, tests and chores must be managed. Services and support can fall short or break down. When someone’s struggling to cope, caring can be really stressful.

At work, staff may find it hard to speak about caring. Some fear their performance or commitment will be questioned; others prefer not to talk about the care they provide, or worry they’ll get upset. Caring may sometimes be disclosed only after an unscheduled absence or problem at work.

Employers shouldn’t wait for problems to arise. They need to know their staff; be clear they see caring as a normal, important, part of life; offer staff flexibility and benefits to help them cope. Ensure managers support staff who are carers: they are often considerate, valuable, employees. Many need no extra help, but at times of stress, and in some circumstances, workplace support makes a huge and welcome difference.

Offer a ‘suite’ of policies for staff in different job roles with varied caring responsibilities. Staff have a legal right to request flexible working. Absent critical business reasons, ensure managers agree to varied hours, hybrid working or an altered working pattern. Part-time hours can help, but mean lower pay, so they don’t work for all. Offer paid carer’s leave for emergency/occasional days off: five-10 days per annum that carers can take in half-days. Consider terminal illness leave for care at end-of-life: reduced hours at normal pay, or a period of leave combining paid and unpaid time off. Help staff create a carers’ network: each month, allow members an hour off with pay to meet, and give a coordinator five to 10 hours at normal pay to run it. Identify carers’ champions among senior staff; establish a carer’s passport scheme so caring roles are recorded and respected.

Organisations that offer these tried and tested supports are confident they make business sense. They impact positively on workforce morale, are rarely abused and few co-workers resent them. Most families experience illness or disability and have frail older members. It could be them; most want to help.

Professor Sue Yeandle is director of the Centre for International Research on Care, Labour and  Equalities (Circle), at the University of Sheffield