Professor David Grayson draws on personal experience for his latest book which explains why employers need to change their attitudes to employees with caring responsibilities

I went half-time in my job at Cranfield to look after my mum in her final years. Like many others, I hadn’t thought of myself as a ‘carer’ early on - just someone doing what they wanted to do for a parent who’d always cared for me. And I struggled. My social and professional circles narrowed, efforts at staying fit were abandoned.

Being a carer - whether that’s caring for elderly relations, a partner, a disabled son or daughter or sibling - is life-altering. Important and rewarding, but it also comes with physical, mental, social and financial costs. These costs can become negatively reinforcing: a kind of caring vicious circle. Reducing or giving up work generally means less money, which can lead to a reduction in opportunities for a social life and increasing isolation, which in turn can impact negatively on physical and mental health.

Vast numbers of people are carers, and many more will be as the UK’s and international populations age. As Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady of the USA, once said: “There are only four kinds of people in the world - those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers”. In the UK there are 6.5 million carers (58% women, 42% men), - rising to over 9 million in the next 20 years; and one in nine are juggling a job at the same time. 

A traditional view - and one that’s looking increasingly old-fashioned - is that these two commitments have to be kept separate. That part of the employment contract involves shedding our home life as we cross the threshold, picking up a professional persona which requires all of our attention and commitment.

Employers can no longer afford to treat their employees as divided in this way. As per a new campaign calling for a ‘100% Human at Work’ culture, employees can’t put their all into work if emotional aspects of their life aren’t allowed to be included. In my work on corporate responsibility I’ve seen progress around the provision of health and wellbeing support, more open debate on mental health and stress in work, and now employers need to integrate caring practices and policies as part of corporate responsibility and as part of diversity and inclusion. It’s not just because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, but because it’s in their own interests. Data shows working carers are most likely to be aged between 45 and 64: the stage when employees have most experience and institutional memory, and be working in key positions.

The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2020 the world will face a ‘skills gap’ of nearly 40 million people. Employers will need to keep their skilled and experienced staff as long as possible. Over the past 20 years organisations have pushed for their staff to become more flexible, more adaptable, to be ‘always on’, and this culture of agility has to work - genuinely - in both directions, in terms of more flexible working hours and availability of leave for carers. Employers can make themselves more attractive for staff, for recruitment and retention, in ways that may well become essential rather than a ‘nice to have’ in years to come.

We know from experiences of the introduction of employee rights to request flexible working that there’s a great difference between an employer that accepts the policy and the practice in terms of attitudes among line managers. In my work, looking at what it really means to be a responsible employer, I’ve talked about there being five stages of ‘maturity’ – and this model could now extend to employers’ responsibility to their working carers. The model begins with Stage 1: denial of the relevance to them; 2. to basic compliance; 3. action to mitigate ‘risk;’ 4. moving on to an “Opportunity Maximiser” stage: seeing the benefits from addressing the issue in a win-win way; and 5. becoming a champion of the issues. It’s clear the line manager is a central figure in ensuring the principle of support is acted out, and the employee carer sees and feels the positive response on an everyday level. After all, if an average line manager has 10-12 direct reports, then (s)he will have at least one working carer amongst them.

SMEs, of course, face particular challenges when it comes to providing flexibility and periods of leave, and because more of us are working for smaller employers there will need to be a wider shift in attitudes to employment and how it fits within people’s lives. As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott have set out in their recent book, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, employers, governments and society need to be more open to the idea of longer working lives made up of more of a melange of full and part-time working alongside breaks for learning, re-freshing and – I would argue – crucial life-stages such as caring for a loved one. Businesses of all types will need to be more resilient in managing this situation.

I draw on my personal experiences as chairman of the Carers UK charity. Part of the charity’s activity includes running a national Employers for Carers network – an alliance of employers including British Gas, KPMG, PWC, Sainsbury - sharing policies and approaches. But while the UK is considered to be fairly advanced when it comes to support for working carers there are lessons to be learnt from overseas where pressure from carer issues are being felt even more keenly. There are currently 6.1 million employed Canadians, or 35 percent of the workforce, providing care to a family member or friend. In Israel, it is estimated 1:4 employees are also care-givers. In Australia, 1:8 (12%) of the working population are carers. It’s in Australia and Canada where Human Rights Commissions are starting to formalise a ‘right to care’ and setting up frameworks to ensure everyone gets the opportunity to have good standards of care, involving family members where it’s needed and wanted. Specific tax and insurance schemes to fund and incentivise care at home and home services are being used in Japan, Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden etc. Other countries are introducing better statutory paid leave for care. Canada offers compassionate care leave up to 28 weeks, with up to 55% salary. Danish employers provide a full salary during care leave, a cost substantially reimbursed through local taxation.

There are practical ways in which employers of all sizes can help their working carers and move towards a more “100% human at work” environment. They can start by getting to know who the carers are within their staff demographic; use this as the basis for a business case; consult with carers on their specific needs; commit to action through a policy and practice; make sure the leadership are behind the initiative and can act as champions. As Employers for Carers chairman and ex-British Gas managing-director Ian Peters says: “CEO push is much more powerful than Human Resources pull!”.  Implementation of help for working carers will typically include some form of flexible, part-time working, options for tele-working/working from home, and enhanced leave arrangements (emergency leave, career breaks and / or specific Carer Leave), as well as advice, information and access to expertise around care services linked to the existing Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). The best employers make sure implementation runs smoothly through line-management training and the adoption of ‘carer passports’ that provide clarity and a level of formality around what’s expected in terms of support.

Professor David Grayson, CBE, is director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University. His book Take Care: How to be a great employer for working carers, will be published by Emerald in July. 

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