Unpaid carers and employment: why it’s time carers are cared for

Blog posts

8 Jun 2023

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

This week is Carers Week, with the theme: ‘Recognising and supporting carers in the community’, highlighting the massive contribution that unpaid carers make to society. Recent research found that unpaid carers in England and Wales contribute a staggering £445 million to the economy every day or to put it in more relatable terms, the economic value of unpaid care is equivalent to a second NHS.  Matt Bennett, one of the authors of the research said: “The economic contribution made by unpaid carers has increased by 29% in the last decade… Without unpaid carers, our health and social care systems would collapse. Our work shows that people are providing more hours of unpaid care than ever before.” 

What is the toll of these unpaid hours for people who work? For those who follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, you will know that I help care for my mother who lives with Alzheimer's disease. Caring for her is a labour of love. No two days are the same, and how my day goes is very much dependent on how she is feeling. This can become exceptionally difficult if work and caring demands clash, leaving me feeling torn about what to prioritise. Carers guilt is real. You can feel like you are either letting the person you care for, or your employer down. When you notice deteriorations in the person, it is like a mini-bereavement. This can begin to feel like a constant cycle of grief, having obvious implications for my own wellbeing and how I sometimes cope at work. The emotional and mental strain can be matched with physical stresses – helping with mobility often results in back pain. But she is my mum, and when she smiles and laughs it does take some of this pain away.

My experience is not uncommon.  A recent report by Carers UK gave some stark statistics about how caring can have an impact on a carer’s health, wellbeing and employment:

  • 21% of carers said their physical health was bad or very bad and 30% said their mental health was bad or very bad.
  • 29% of carers reported feeling lonely often or always, with 51% of carers saying being able to take a break would help them feel less lonely.
  • 75% of respondents were worried about continuing to juggle work and care.
  • 65% of carers had given up opportunities at work (promotions for example) because of their caring responsibilities.
  • 29% of respondents had already reduced their working hours, while a further 11% felt they needed to in order to manage their caring responsibilities.

These results serve to highlight that now, more than ever, it is important for organisations to put practices in place to care for the carer. Organisational actions that have been helpful include:

  • Having a safe organisational culture to disclose caring responsibilities. It can be really embarrassing for some people to admit what they have to deal with at home. I was so used to saying that everything was ‘ok’, until my caring responsibilities dramatically increased during lockdown. Feeling able to talk about the changes in my mum’s Alzheimer’s and what that means for me has been a huge help.
  • Peer support. This is so easily forgotten but something that has been pivotal for me. Knowing that there are excellent colleagues at work who have been or are going through similar situations that you can openly talk to can really give you a boost. The power of peer support for wellbeing should not be underestimated. At IES we have recently developed a carers peer support network which means that we know when we, or the person we are caring for is having a bad day, there is someone we can approach for support.
  • The role of the line manager is really important.  It can be easy to wag our fingers at line managers and say that they are not doing enough.  Line managers are squeezed, but as caring needs rise, this needs to be on a line manager’s agenda. At IES we recently undertook line manager training about working carers. Line managers were provided with real-life caring scenarios from internal staff and were asked what line managers could do to support staff in these situations. We are not expecting line managers to be clinicians, but if a direct report discloses to them, it may be helpful for line managers to look into a specific condition to understand the carer’s needs and even how the condition progresses to prepare for future support needs.
  • Sign posting to additional support – be that EAPs, patient charities and OH. The employee has a role here as well – I’ve been blown away by how much help is provided by patient charities, and it is the carer’s responsibility to look into this too.
  • Flexible work – knowing there is flexibility around medical appointments, working condensed hours has been useful. Having a carers policy to ensure that all line managers have an understanding of what the organisation can do, and that this is implemented fairly for all those with caring responsibilities is key. Other adjustments could include: adjusting deadlines, removing additional duties to reduce pressures at key times, or allowing for ‘job crafting’ so employees feel comfortable at work, could all be introduced to avoid burnout.
  •  Although carers leave has now received Royal Assent, organisations could consider whether this could be paid leave, especially as the cost of living crisis has had implications for working carers.

Being a working carer is tough – there is no other way of putting it. In some situations, work can provide a sense of normality that we crave, and with employer, peer and HR support there are ways in which we can still ‘work well’.

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