Who cares for working carers?

Blog posts

9 Jun 2016

Andrea BroughtonAndrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow

Carers Week seems like a good opportunity to consider the growing number of employees who have responsibility for caring for an elderly relative. As the population ages and people are living longer, but not necessarily in good health, those who are working in their 40s, 50s and 60s are increasingly finding that they are assuming care responsibility for an elderly relative, usually a parent. A 2015 report by Eurofound on work and caring across the EU points out that 8 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women aged 18-64 and in employment, care for an elderly or disabled relative at least once or twice a week. Among workers aged 50-64, the proportion rises to 18 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women. This can place individuals under considerable strain, as they struggle to balance their job with the care needs of their relatives and, in some cases, the care of young children too (the so-called sandwich generation).

Historically, there has not been much emphasis on meeting the needs of working carers. However, this is now starting to change, as employers are realising that they need to hang on to these growing numbers of experienced and valuable members of staff.

At IES, we recently carried out research for the CIPD exploring the challenges of managing older workers, including supporting working carers. We looked in some detail at the situation in five European countries and found that this is a common issue troubling policymakers and employers. In the Czech Republic, France, Germany and the UK there is a strong reliance on informal care - relying on relatives to care for older family members, usually on an unpaid basis. This contrasts with the situation in Denmark, where there is good state provision for eldercare and the relatives of older people typically do not need to think about how to arrange and manage care.

Overall, we found that, with the possible exception of Denmark, there is a lack of a joined-up and thought-through government policy on providing support for working carers. One of the problems is that, in contrast to childcare, which is regular and predictable, eldercare can be unpredictable and characterised by emergencies which have to be managed at short notice. This can be difficult for employers to handle, particularly in smaller organisations. Nevertheless, we found some great examples of what employers are doing in different countries, in terms of providing a significant level of flexibility in working time, or offering advice on care packages and the financing of care.

For example, at the bus company Arriva in Denmark, although there are no official company initiatives providing support to working carers, there is a lot of informal flexibility. The organisation is flexible in terms of employees’ working hours and schedules, and the older workers in the organisation are also flexible when their colleagues are in need. Many of the drivers in some teams are older workers and work part-time or half-time and therefore do not mind if they are asked to work an extra shift occasionally to cover for a colleague.

Another case study in our research, an airport owner and operator in Germany, has been offering flexible working hours and home working to support its employees with caring responsibilities since 2013. In addition, the company cooperates with external counselling services that provide employees with assistance with home care, care facilities, related financial issues including guidance about contacts to turn to for specific assistance. The company has found that its workers remain fit for work in short or prolonged difficult personal situations when they are supported in this way.

In France, the companies Danone and Bayard offer a support service to their employees, for an average payment of €15 a year. Participating employees can phone a free number and talk to an expert counsellor trained in age-related issues. Within 72 hours, the counsellor will send the employee a response to their problem, such as offering details of local groups that can provide support, advice and general practical suggestions. Three weeks later, the counsellor follows up with the individual to assess progress.

Of course, providing help for older workers with care responsibilities can be challenging for employers. While a growing number of organisations recognise that more support is needed, many do not know what kind of provision will effectively support workers whose care responsibilities can be unpredictable and fluctuate considerably. Helping working carers by means of providing working time flexibility is clearly a key enabler. A little creative thinking, bearing in mind the individual situation of each employee, and decision-making on a case-by-case basis, where possible, can also help a great deal. Line managers also need to be relaxed about engaging with this issue in the first place and then working with individuals to see how particular situations can be managed, possibly within a wider company policy framework. These conversations can be difficult and require sensitivity as not all employees will feel comfortable about discussing their situation, resulting in care often being a ‘hidden’ issue in organisations across Europe. Training for line managers to sensitise them to the needs of carers and encourage them to be more empathetic can also play an important role.

There also needs to be a fair degree of trust on the part of line managers – what working carers may need might not be conventional in terms of a 9-5 presence in the workplace, but it will be a way of managing potentially conflicting demands and ensuring that individuals can carry on working alongside care responsibilities. There really isn’t much choice for organisations in the medium to long term: if they don’t work out ways to support their working carers, they risk losing valuable talent and skills in an increasingly competitive operating environment. 

Read the IES research for CIPDCIPD0516


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