Informal care & employment in ‘Lockdown’ – Are we doing enough to help?

Blog posts

12 Jun 2020

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

Although we are currently still enduring the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and will be for many months yet as we begin to return to ‘a new normal’, one of the notable issues that has come to for is how groups of society have been differentially affected.  Certain sectors and occupations that may have previously been overlooked have been relabelled as ‘key workers’ (shop staff, bin collectors, social care workers) and applauded.  However, we have also seen the impact of the social gradient and how ethnicity, geographical location, existing health inequalities and job quality has resulted in both greater risks of contracting and dying from the virus and employment/financial outcomes.

This week is National Carers Week, and it is time to shine a light on a usually ‘hidden group’ in the population – unpaid carers, who for many (myself included) may have suddenly found themselves wearing many hats during lockdown – trying to fit caring responsibilities around their new working routine (and sometimes feeling they are failing at both).  This week it is time to consider the needs of this population, and what employers should be considering during the rest of the lockdown period, and in the next phases of the economic recovery. 

Research published by UK Carers found that:

  • 4.5 million additional people caring for older, disabled or seriously ill relatives or friends since the Covid-19 pandemic.  This is on top of the 9.1 million unpaid carers who were already caring before the outbreak, bringing the total to 13.6 million.
  • 2.8 million people (62%) who have started caring since the outbreak are also juggling paid work alongside their caring responsibilities, highlighting the need for working carers to be supported as they return to offices and work sites.
  • Both unpaid carers (71%) and adults without caring responsibilities (70%) said managing the stress and responsibility of being an unpaid carer was/ would be the top challenge when caring. Families are under a huge amount of pressure managing their caring roles and are worried about how they will cope in the weeks and months ahead.

A recent Twitter comment summed this up so concisely when a new carer observed: “I am not a full-time carer, but living with my parents in lockdown has thrust me into a caring role.  Some days can be good, but some can be really, really hard”.  

But what about the implications of caring on employment?  Recent research by the Phoenix Group has highlighted that:

  • 3/5 working carers in the UK had to take annual leave to carry out their caring duties in the last year.  On average carers took an average of 6 days from their leave allowance.
  • 2.5 million employed carers said their employer does not support a carers need for additional leave.
  • 3 out of ten workers reported they may have to give up their existing job due to unsupportive employers.

Results from IES’s home-working and wellbeing survey that we developed to monitor the impact of the Covid-19 found that those with adult caring responsibilities were more likely to work more hours than contracted, have reduced work-life balance and job satisfaction in comparison to those who had no caring responsibilities.  Although this may not be surprising for many, it highlights that employers still have work to do to ensure fairness and good quality work amongst this population.  The issues of ‘role conflict’ that carers can experience is one of the drivers of stress in the HSE stress management standards, and it could be argued that the longer lockdown continues, the greater the effects of the role conflict can become.

So, what have we learnt from Covid-19, and how can these lessons be used to inform employer policies and practices for unpaid carers in the future?

Before Covid-19, it was reported that 52% of the UK workforce admitted that they would struggle to give up work and care for a loved one, and if they did not have increased flexibility and support from the workplace they would feel forced to go down this route.  The enforced lockdown resulting in a change of work patterns and the necessity for many to work from home may have enabled employers and employees to recognise that if managed correctly having more flexible working patterns could help carers manage both their job and caring responsibilities.  The emphasis however is ‘if managed correctly’, as the Phoenix Group reported that 57% of carers believed that their organisation is no more or less likely to support employees who need to manage caring responsibilities in the future.  So what can be done?

Carer wellbeing: It is important to recognise the impact that lockdown is having on a carer’s wellbeing.  From personal experience I know that it can sometimes feel that you are wearing too many hats – and at many times without aplomb.  At times I have felt that I have struggled as an employee, a carer and a daughter if there have been days where I have been pulled in various directions.  Not only can this become exhausting – but there is the guilt that you know you should be doing better (even though you are doing the best in a bad situation).  Knowing that you have the support of your line manager and colleagues at this time is so important.  Regular touch-points with colleagues, virtual cups of tea, or a chance to off-load to a sympathetic ear is critical at these times, especially as the sense of isolation that those who provide care experience can be magnified.  But, as discussions about the next stage of recovery begin, carer wellbeing needs to be included and organisations must ensure that carers voices are heard effectively. 

Line managers: IES has written extensively about the importance of line managers, and the employment relationship and their role is just as important here.  It is important that line managers are sympathetic to the needs of those they manage who may have additional caring needs.  They need to be sensitive to the needs of carers and recognise that although attempts may be made to set aside ‘working time’ and ‘caring time’, there will need to be flexibility dependent on day to day circumstances.  Flexibility may also have to be afforded in terms of performance targets and outcomes during this time, and kindness will always be appreciated by staff.  Line managers should also be aware of organisational policies and practices regarding carers rights and ensure that they are correctly and sympathetically implemented.

When considering the next phases of economic recovery, there are a number of questions or factors that line managers and carers may wish to consider with regards returning to the office.  Has this enforced lockdown highlighted that with support and flexibility carers are able to undertake their caring responsibilities, and would working from home ensure that the carer is able to remain in employment?  Will there be members of staff who have had to start caring in lockdown whose needs will now need to be considered?  Some carers on returning to the office may experience ‘guilt’ on leaving those they care for and so line managers will have to be aware of this, and others may have to delay a return to the office whilst external care arrangements are made.  All these matters need to be dealt with flexibly and with sensitivity.

The pandemic has helped shine a light on the invaluable work that unpaid carers provide, but their wellbeing is also important to consider, and employment maybe an important aspect of this.  Ensuring that carers needs are accommodated throughout the next stages of the crisis is necessary, but more importantly lessons in positive employment practices for carers need to be sustained, so their value can be rightly recognised.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.