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Supporting workers who care

21 May 2012

Supporting workers who care


With more employees struggling to balance work with care duties, employers need to do more to direct carers towards appropriate support…

According to Carers UK, one in seven people in the workforce already care for someone who is ill, frail or has a disability. With the default retirement age coming to an end last month, pension funds failing to deliver and average life expectancy now well over 80 years for men and women alike, even more workers are predicted to find themselves struggling to balance working later in life with looking after an elderly relative.

At the same time, fewer working parents will be able to depend upon retired grandparents to look after their young (as the grandparents will still be working themselves), putting additional financial and emotional pressure on younger working parents in their 20s, 30s and 40s.


The result is that if your wellbeing policies don’t already cater for those struggling to balance work with elder and younger care responsibilities, they’ll soon need to be, if you don’t want your organisation to suffer from the lost productivity and long-term absence issues that can so easily be prevented with appropriate upfront support.


In our experience, most carers put an unreasonable amount of pressure on themselves when it comes to caring for a loved one, and are simply unaware of or unable to ask for the help that is available. In the case of young children, mothers often fall into the routine of working a full day, only to also take care of all the cooking, cleaning and tending to the needs of their children, day and night. Although their partner might well be willing to help, they either feel resentful asking for this help on the grounds that “I shouldn’t have to ask”, or are so entrenched in their routine that they haven’t even realised how unbalanced it’s become. Others reject help on the grounds that they can do things better themselves, or simply lack the communication skills and confidence required to get their partner or other family members to contribute more.


Although their reason for eventually phoning the Employee Assistance Helpline typically presents itself as marital problems, feeling tearful at work or physical exhaustion, the real reason is nearly always the sheer burden of responsibility that they’re carrying around.


When it comes to caring for an elderly, perhaps dying, relative, the tendency to try to do everything themselves, even if that’s more than they are able to cope with, is even greater. The change in retirement law and lack of savings required to retire comfortably mean that instead of being on hand at home to provide support, many workers in their 50s or 60s who would have liked to take early retirement are having to get up as early as 5am, or even earlier, to dress and feed an elderly relative before work, returning to check on them during their lunch hour and again straight after work, with little or no time for themselves and other family members.


Often carers are also the most driven and committed people in the workforce. Their commitment and drive causes them to put an unreasonable amount of pressure on themselves to do it all on their own. They’re likely to be unaware of additional support services that our legal advisors can direct them towards, such as getting some more help in the home or having meals delivered – simple things that can make a tremendous difference.


Even where there isn’t any obvious outside support, just giving the employee the confidence to ask their boss for a later start time, or insist that a sibling who justifies not providing practical support due to their high-powered job contributes towards the cost of a cleaner, can make them feel supported and free up a valuable and badly needed couple of hours a week for them to nurture themselves and their other relationships.


With one in seven workers also acting as carers and extended life expectancy set to increase this further, employers need to do all they can to take note of who the carers within their organisation are, so that they can direct them towards appropriate help and support – before they become too physically or emotionally exhausted to function.


Perhaps most important of all is educating workers who care that it’s okay to ask for support from work. Let them know that this isn’t a sign of weakness but the sensible thing to do. Not only would this alleviate the sense of isolation that most carers endure, making them feel even more loyal and committed to their employer, but by giving them easy access to appropriate support and permission to cut themselves a little slack when needed, it would prevent them from taking on so much that they eventually feel forced to quit work or go long-term absent, an outcome that would cost both the employer and employee far more in the long run.