Caring for carers

Most of us juggle busy lives, trying to find a happy balance between the demands of work, family and friends. But for the 1.5 million working people who have also undertaken responsibility to care for a relative, partner or friend who needs the support because of sickness, age or disability, the pressure on them to fulfil both roles can be particularly challenging.

So how can you go about best supporting the carers in your workplace?

A good place to start when attempting to care for the carers in your organisation is to think about the circumstances the individual employee has found themselves in.

In many cases they may not have opted to become a carer but have simply got on with caring for their parent, friend, partner or child because they assume there’s no external assistance or support available and no one else to take on the role. Here, becoming a carer just happens. And when it does, the personal consequences for the carer and the impact of their professional life can be significant, ultimately requiring them to give up work altogether.

But even when they do continue to work, carers can be faced with the challenge and stress of juggling jobs and personal responsibilities. This stress will likely be compounded by a lack of information and support. And although the signs of mounting stress may not immediately be obvious to you, they might include irritation, frustration, tiredness and perhaps irritability, as well as absence and diminishing levels of productivity.

Balancing care and work

Of course, there is a chance that you don’t know which of your employees may have caring responsibilities. In a recent survey of working carers by Employers for Carers, just three-quarters of employees had informed their employer about their caring responsibilities, leaving a significant proportion without the opportunity to seek or receive support from their employer for this.

But when an employee has explained that they have taken on caring responsibilities for another person, it’s an opportunity for you as their employer to better engage with them and help them to manage and balance their personal and professional commitments, offering compassion and support should they need to take time off at short notice.

It’s important to also remember that you have a legal obligation to support carers in the workplace: carers have the right to request flexible working, the right to time off in emergencies, the right to parental leave if they have a child and the right not to be discriminated against or harassed under the Equality Act, for example.

Alongside this duty of care, you can also assist carers by ensuring they have access to emotional and practical support, such as signposting information that is relevant to an individual’s personal circumstances via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

This type of service can signpost carers to support and information, helping them to understand the practical help they’re entitled to as well as providing a confidential 24/7 help line that allows employees to call to off load emotional concerns to trained professionals. EAPs can also provide services such as specialist debt counselling, as well as child, elder and disability advice on issues such as finding a care home for an elderly relative, research the possibilities of financial support such as benefits and grants And for those working carers who have not disclosed their situation, the confidential and accessible nature of an EAP helpline can make the difference between coping and falling apart.

Practical workplace strategies

In addition to the emotional and information support and advice, there are also strategies and policies you can introduce to train managers and increase their awareness of the needs and challenges of carers in the workplace. Line managers, for example, should be briefed and guided when it comes to negotiating flexible working – including implementing flexible start and finish times – that serve the needs of the carer and the business.

There is also scope to consider connecting carers within an organisation; the opportunity to discuss the challenges of balancing caring and corporate roles can contribute to reducing absence levels, as well as absenteeism, and can also have morale and motivational benefits for the business as individuals learn new techniques for coping with the demands on their time, expertise and emotions.

Openly discussing and addressing the question of emergency leave is another topic that can help carers in the workplace. Having a plan in place that enables individuals to take time off in an emergency without the pressure and worry that work is waiting can have a positive influence on morale and encourage return to work sooner than might otherwise be anticipated.

You should also consider what to do if there is an emergency in the workplace that affects the carer: are there plans in place that enable you, as an employer, can make contact with the employee’s family members, friends or the appropriate authorities to advise them of the situation and put an appropriate plan of action in place?

The future of carers in the workplace

There’s no doubt that with our ageing population and ongoing cuts to public services it’s inevitable that more people will take on caring responsibilities, making this an issue that just can’t be ignored and should be regarded as an opportunity rather than a problem for forward-thinking SMEs.

Image: Carer via Shutterstock