Employers must act this Carer’s Week to support staff with care responsibilities
Today marks the start of Carer’s Week, a national awareness week celebrating the selfless work of unpaid carers and shining a spotlight on the challenges they face.
Currently in the UK, there are no statutory protections designed specifically for unpaid carers.
All employees have the right to take time off for dependants in emergency situations – but this can be used only be used for emergencies and doesn’t cover other, equally important, situations e.g. planned appointments.
This time is often also unpaid, unless organisations choose to provide enhanced pay, so taking it could cause financial worries.
There was government consultation on introducing a new right to statutory carer’s leave, which would have given five days’ unpaid leave per year to all employees (from day one of their employment) who care for a dependant with a long-term health condition.
But with no mention of the Employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech, it appears these plans have been put on hold for now.
However, there are still ways which employers can support staff who have caring responsibilities, beyond the statutory rights.
Kate Palmer, HR Advice & Consultancy Director at Peninsula, explains:
“It’s important for employers to understand that caring responsibilities must often take priority, therefore employers should take a more flexible approach in supporting their staff who are also carers.
“Allowing flexibility with last minute annual leave requests, offering flexible working arrangements, and adjusting workloads can help. It’s also crucial to create a culture of open communication so employees can come to you with any issues they may be facing.”
Gaynor Siviter-Green has worked in the Documentation team at Peninsula for 7 years. She has also taken on caring responsibilities for the last 20 years; firstly for her mother who sadly passed away in November 2021, and now her husband who is living with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis.
Gaynor says: “I’ve loved working for Peninsula since day one. The team at Peninsula are incredibly supportive when it comes to helping me balance my full-time job and my responsibilities at home.
“I am a private person and don’t like to share too many details of my private life. However, having been a carer for upwards of two decades now, the one thing I have learnt – and that I hope other people in similar situations know too – is that it’s so important to just tell somebody about what you’re going through.
“As a carer I need to be incredibly organised. For instance, I must meticulously plan out my husband’s need for oxygen tanks which are then positioned as required around our home. The need to plan becomes even more crucial when we do go out, whether it’s to attend a hospital appointment, meet friends, or go on holiday.
“However, there is always the possibility of something not going to plan. No matter how organised you are, when you are responsible for looking after the health and wellbeing of another person who is vulnerable and dependant on you, you must allow for instances where the unexpected happens.
“That’s why it’s so important for your employer to have an understanding on what you’re taking on at home That way, when the alarm is triggered and you need to leave immediately to tend to your relative, you can do just that and they know you will make up the hours when you can, so productivity never falls below 100%.
“It’s that understanding that allows me to juggle these responsibilities effectively. Although it’s incredibly tiring and consuming to work full time as well as being a carer, I can get through it with the support of my manager and colleagues. They see the human behind the employee.”
Gaynor is one of an estimated 13.6 million unpaid carers in the UK; a number which has skyrocketed by 5.4 million since the start of the pandemic.
She shares her advice for those who are in a similar situation.
“The thing is that being a carer you can’t do it all on your own. You need to have a support system in place. Whether that’s utilising an employee assistance programme or being able to confide in your manager and colleagues.
“For many years, I tried to go it alone, keeping my home and work life separate. I didn’t want anyone to know about my caring responsibilities for fear that I would be accused of using them as an excuse to leave early. But, realistically, the two do intertwine. When you make that first move and let a key person know what’s going on, you’ll instantly feel a wave of relief.
“One of the biggest challenges I faced when it comes to caring when it was first thrust upon me. I remember thinking ‘where on earth do I start?’
“This is where utilising your employer’s employee assistance programme comes in really handy. Having that 24/7 access to support and the ability to speak to trained counselling professionals is a great way to get informed, whilst also being able to offload and work through your emotions.
“I was also heavily reliant on Citizens Advice who were instrumental in letting me know what types of support my mother and husband were entitled too.”
“It’s disheartening to hear that the proposed bill for carer’s leave has been shelved. In my situation, I know that I can fulfil my caring responsibilities as I have a great degree of flexibility and understanding from my employer Peninsula. But I also know that sadly this may not be the case for everyone.
“I’d love to see the introduction of this bill in the future to give carers like myself a little more leniency and support. However, it’s more important for employers to see the human side of their staff; to acknowledge that they have things going on in their home lives that, often, need to come first.”