Who cares at work?

Balancing the often-conflicting elements of work and life can be a major source of stress and mental health issues for all of us. But the struggle to find this balance can be even more acutely felt for those with family and caring commitments. Financial worries, lack of sleep, relationship breakdowns and many other triggers can affect wellbeing, and all of this can impact on a person’s overall health leading to a compromised immune system which leads to a cycle of poor health and low wellbeing. As an employer, this can have a sizeable impact on business.

Achieving a work-life balance for those who have caring commitments can be one of the biggest challenges faced by individuals and employers alike in today’s working environment.

Increased life expectancy and better health care have led to a population that is living longer than ever before. But with this positive change, there also come challenges. The high cost of care for the elderly means that many people are finding themselves caring for their parents, or other elderly relatives. Indeed, more than three million people in the UK now have to juggle work commitments with caring for elderly or sick loved ones.

Research has shown that on average, employees take 5 days off work a year due to family reasons (not including maternity/paternity leave). This is higher than the number of sick days taken which, according to figures released by the Office of National Statistics, is closer to 4 days. In monetary terms, this equates to a total cost of £618 in lost time for every employee with caring commitments (based on an average salary of £29,000). Yet this figure does not account for the number of sick days that employees are claiming to care family caring reasons as 31% of people surveyed admitted to taking a sick day if they were refused flexibility for care by their employer.

Futhermore, this problem can lead to employees going into work when they are ill if they have used up sick days for care, which creates a medley of problems for wellbeing and productivity across the board. Stressed and unwell employees are less likely to perform productively when they are present at work.

There is also a massive financial pressure when a loved one falls ill, and finally goes into care, which causes further stress. With parents having to spend their life savings or sell their house, watching their years of hard being spent on their care at the end of their lives can be difficult.

So how should employers approach this issue? And what are your rights at work if you are a carer?

In order to retain employees, keep them engaged and prevent avoidable costs through absenteeism, employers should invest time into understanding their worker’s circumstances and investigate how they could adopt a more supportive working culture. As an employer, with the costs of absenteeism and attrition being what they are, it is in your best interest to be supportive to the carers in your team. Wherever possible, allow them to work flexibly and perhaps consider cross-training staff in one and other’s roles so that team members can support each other.

The definition of a carer, as stated by the government, is an employee who is or expects to be caring for an adult who is one of the following:

  • Is a spouse, partner, or civil partner (who the employee lives with);
  • Is a relative of the employee;
  • Falls into neither category but lives at the same address as the employee.

The ‘relative’ definition includes parents, parent-in-law, adult child, adopted adult child, siblings (including those who are in-laws), uncles, aunts or grandparents and step-relatives.

If you are personally in the position of being someone’s carer, then you will know how difficult is to balance responsibilities at work and at home. Naturally, you want to give your best to both roles but there will always be times where this is not possible. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to cope with the demands placed on you.

The first step if you are working for an employer as a carer is to tell them about your situation and your responsibilities. Caring for a relative is often unpredictable and so being open with your employers about your concerns and commitments is an important first step.

Think about how your employer could help you and talk to them about your needs. Your employer might consider different arrangements including flexible working and special leave in emergencies. If you have been working for your employer for 26 weeks, you have a right to request flexible working and you can make one request each year. Whilst you have the right to request, this does not guarantee that your employer will grant you flexible working patterns. An employer must seriously consider your application and can only reject you if there are good business reasons for doing so, which is why being open and honest with your employer about why you are making the request can be so vital.

There are different ways to work flexibly. You could work from home or have flexible start or finish times. Other flexible working arrangements include:

  • compressed working hours (where you work your normal number of hours in a shorter time. For example, by fitting five days’ work into three/four days.
  • term-time or annualised working hours (the number of hours you are contracted for per month or year are worked in a flexible way)
  • job-sharing or part-time working
  • flexible holidays to fit in with alternative care arrangements

Trying to balance care needs with work can also be exacerbated by travel. There is a great deal of pressure on the individual to cover their work load alongside caring needs. Employers could consider offering or allowing for a co-working space or shared office for the employee to temporarily base themselves.

Tiredness alongside stress is another issue. Employers could consider support through the HR department, in providing advice on care costs, funeral management or legal issues.

If you are a caregiver, then it may feel impossible to juggle all your responsibility. But there are steps you can take to make life more manageable and requesting flexible working can be an important one. Talk honestly with your boss and your situation and be assertive about what you can and can’t handle.

As a caregiver your time is the most precious thing you can give – and it is often in short supply. It’s important to remember to take time for yourself, whether that comes in the form of a session at the gym, a bubble bath or a coffee with a friend. Don’t be tempted to skip this time. Taking time for yourself will help you to manage stress and ensure that you have the physical and mental energy to be at your best for those who rely on you.

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