What targeted support can employers offer to meet the wellbeing needs of carers?

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Need to know:

  • The pandemic has triggered a cultural shift in how we work, with a newfound openness alongside a wider acceptance of flexible working. These are both welcome developments for working carers.
  • However, we shouldn’t underestimate how challenging working life can be for carers. Employers should seek to address carers’ emotional, financial and physical wellbeing through their benefits strategies.
  • Employers should offer practical support like continued acceptance of flexible working, empowering managers and leaders via mental first aid courses and teaching them to listen actively. They should also clearly signpost support for carers.

Over the course of the pandemic, the number of employees with caring responsibilities has increased by a staggering 2.8 million, according to research published by Carers UK in November 2020. At the same time, Zoom and Teams have given employers glimpses into people’s home lives in a way that office life never allowed, encouraging employees to open up about the pressures that they face daily.

With both numbers and awareness increasing rapidly, employers are seeking new ways to support carers’ emotional, financial and physical wellbeing. Where should they start?

Emotional wellbeing

There has been a cultural shift in the workplace over the last couple of years, says Sally Campbell, head of clinical development at Healix UK. “More and more people have taken on caring duties over the course of the pandemic. At one time we might not have talked about it, whereas now, it’s becoming the norm to be able to discuss it. I think in most workplaces, probably the biggest form of practical help that you can provide is being a open and flexible workplace and being prepared to listen really effectively to what people need.”

Employers should consider ways of helping people to share their experiences. Phoenix Group has a carers’ network. “It provides an opportunity for working carers to share experiences and information and gives them the chance to meet colleagues facing similar challenges,” explains Sara Thompson, Phoenix Group’s HR director.

Who better to talk about supporting carers than a care provider? As well as echoing Thompson’s suggestion, Claire Leake, people director at National Care Group, observes: “Carers often neglect their own health, with their lives consumed by both caring and professional responsibilities. Through employee assistance programmes, employers can provide face-to-face counselling, email and phone support 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Senior people should lead by example and show their colleagues that mental health is a priority, adds Leake. “We aren’t immune to mental health issues ourselves but as leaders we often feel pressure to battle through them, thinking that is the way to lead by example. In reality, we need to be demonstrating that mental health comes first, and that it’s OK to take some holiday and have some downtime. By doing that, it pushes through to the team and cascades through the business.”

National Care Group also tries to train as many of its senior team in mental health first aid as possible, says Leake. “We want to build up a resilience within the business, which comes from knowing that our team leaders have the ability to spot those warning signs early and ensure that the individual gets the help they need.”

Time is the most valuable commodity for carers, says Jamie Mackenzie, director at Sodexo Engage. He suggests: “Employers can implement holiday buy-back schemes, to get more time to switch off and recharge their batteries. Buying holiday days can be staggered across an entire year, meaning that it’s only a small fraction out of each pay cheque.”

Which brings us to financial support.

Financial support

When it comes to supporting carers with their finances, many universal, good sense principles ring true. As Mackenzie says: “Employers can help by offering budgeting tools, financial calculators and cost comparison services, to offer a sense of security. For those looking to go one step further, sharing discounts via a cashback scheme or providing access to discounts on things like the weekly shop, can make a huge difference.”

Thinking about the longer term is also important. Pete Hykin, co-founder at Penfold says: “Although many carers will be focusing on the current state of their finances, it’s important for them to build up long-term savings to develop their financial resilience. A big part of this is having a flexible and accessible workplace pension which gives people the ability to change or pause pension payments depending on their financial circumstances at any given moment.”

More fundamentally, employers should be thinking about how to keep carers in the workforce. As Phoenix’s Thompson says: “In 2020 some 4.4 million working carers reported that they had to take annual leave to fulfil their caring duties [according to Phoenix Group research]. Faced with the challenges of juggling caring and work responsibilities, many are having to use their annual leave to care for their loved ones, or find themselves having to give up work all together which can have a devastating impact on their financial stability.”

Phoenix practises what it preaches: it provides its working carers with up to 10 days’ paid leave, with the option for a further five unpaid days if required.

Physical health

With time at a premium, it can be difficult for carers to look after their own physical health. Almost three-quarters (71%) reported poor physical or mental health, according to Carers UK research from 2015; the pandemic has surely made this an even bigger problem.

Mackenzie says: “Employers have a duty to account for their wellbeing, perhaps through flexible working arrangements, in the form of compressed hours or flexitime, which can help working carers achieve a better work-life balance. These are initiatives that should be offered across the workforce to avoid alienating or disengaging other employees. A healthy balance is good for everyone.”

Make it easy and convenient for carers to seek help. “During the pandemic, virtual GP services have proved their weight in gold,” says Campbell. “With the one that we work with, it doesn’t just have to be the employee that can use it, it’s the household. So, if they have the elderly parents staying and they have a worry, they can use it for their elderly parents, or their children. I think that’s a really practical thing that has been a big help.”

Universal principles

From employee assistance programmes to flexible working, many employers are already providing a plethora of resources which could help carers. It’s important to make sure that they are signposted and easily accessible.

A healthy dose of empathy will also go a long way. Teaching line managers to actively listen is a great way to empower them, says Campbell. “We get taught to read, we get taught to write, we get taught to speak in public now at school, but we never really get taught how to listen properly. I think that can be a really important thing. Employers should give line managers the tools to be able to do that.”