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Eldercare: a growing issue for senior executives

15% of the UK population will need to care for an elderly or disabled relative at some time – and as workforces age, employers will need to balance their needs to retain talent. So what are employers’ options? By Nick Martindale.

Many employers are coming round to the idea that their employees will be working later into life, and that they will be required to help manage this ageing population. But what is less thought about is that, with people both living and working longer, the number of staff with responsibility for caring for elderly family or friends is also on the rise.

According to Employers for Carers, part of Carers UK, more than three million people currently juggle work and caring responsibilities[1] , equating to around one in nine people in the workplace[2]. With the number of carers in general expected to grow from six million to nine million over the next 30 years, this is one issue that employers can expect to hear a lot more about in the future. 

This is potentially a serious problem for businesses. Around nine in 10 carers are aged over 30, making them experienced staff who employers should be keen to retain. Yet around one in five[3] employees with caring responsibilities feel they have to cut back on their hours or give up work altogether, according to Carers UK.

“There are plenty of stories of individuals having to give up their jobs to provide care for relatives,” says Stuart Hyland, Business Leader, UK reward solutions consulting, at Hay Group. “This is a huge loss for any organisation, as well as for the individual concerned. The risks for employers extend beyond the financial, as a change in job continuity can have a negative knock-on effect on performance. Even when an individual does not leave an organisation, they will clearly be distracted and concerned about their relative, and feel a huge amount of pressure to balance caring and work demands.”

So far, it seems as if employers are largely unaware of this issue. According to the Chartered 

Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s absence management survey[4], only one in six organisations has developed a policy around the issue of carers, despite the fact that one in three has already had experience of an employee having to juggle caring responsibilities with their day job.

The first step should be to identify who the carers are, suggests Ben Black, Director of My Family Care.  This is not as easy as it sounds. “People with caring responsibilities do not have a tell-tale bump or beat their chests like new dads and shout about going to sports day,” he says. “They often don’t even recognise themselves as carers; it’s the good employers who identify who the hidden carers really are.”

Once carers have been identified, there is a range of practical support employers can offer. Flexible working around both hours and locations will be hugely valued by the group, suggests Katherine Wilson, Strategic Manager at Employers for Carers, but this means providing guidance and training to managers, so they understand the issue and can think of possible solutions. “If it’s an operational workplace – so if you’re driving trains or out in warehouses – it’s not as easy for line managers to think they can juggle things about or look at a flexible approach,” she says. “Whatever policies you have for carers, you need to make sure your line managers understand why this is such an important issue.”

Yet often the kind of flexibility individuals need cannot be planned, points out Dr Jill Miller, Research Adviser at the CIPD. “Unlike childcare, which traditionally follows a certain course where you have nurseries and school and there’s a general pattern, with elder care it’s a lot more unpredictable,” she explains. Having the ability to buy extra days’ holiday could help here, she says, as well as providing employees with the flexibility they need to deal with unexpected hospital appointments.

Miller also highlights the concept of a carers’ network, to enable employees to support each other and put forward suggestions to their business. Working together like this, carers could explore measures that would help them meet their responsibilities, both to their employer and the elderly person who depends on them.

Making counselling services available or offering an employee assistance programme to help those affected cope with the pressure that comes from having such responsibilities would also be beneficial, she says, while employers could also create dedicated rooms in offices which people can use for private phone calls. “This could just be for employees who want to call their bank but also for people with caring responsibilities to speak to doctors without being overheard by colleagues,” she says.

A number of employers are already taking steps to help those tasked with eldercare responsibilities. Mike Minett, managing director of The Positive Ageing Company, highlights Centrica and BT as examples. “At Centrica, when they have an induction for a new employee they talk about their strong commitment to caring and showcase a working carer, so anyone joining sees that this is just the way they go about it,” he says. “BT has a carers’ passport which documents their requirements, so if people move around in the organisation their passport goes with them, so there’s an understanding of their circumstances and how to support them.”

Whatever employers choose to do, they need to ensure it is genuine rather than simply putting stringent procedures in place, warns Hyland. “Employers cannot just direct an employee to the company policy,” he warns. “They need to sit down with them to really understand what they are dealing with outside of work, and develop a personalised strategy for them, with clarity on the support they can and, crucially, cannot provide.”

Employers who can do this should benefit from improved staff performance and reduce unnecessary turnover. Most importantly, it will help their employees – and their dependants – cope with a difficult time in their lives. “A lot of businesses calculate it can cost as much as one year’s salary if they lose someone, because they then have to recruit someone else and get them up to speed,” says Wilson. “So there’s an analytical approach to this, around the business case. But there’s also an emotional case that this is just the right thing to do. It could happen to any of us.”

To view this online and for insight, articles and info graphics on topics affecting HR professionals, please visit Workplace Focus.


[1] Who Cares Wins: the social and business benefits of supporting working carers – a report by Carers UK, 2006

[4] CIPD Absence Management Survey 2014, www.cipd.co.uk

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