Following the interest in our Employee Wellbeing series to date, we have released this additional fifth article focusing on the support that can be provided to employees who may have to balance their duties in the workplace with caring responsibilities outside work.

Why support matters

1 in 7 employees in the workplace currently have caring responsibilities and as many as 1 in 6 carers have left work or reduced their hours to accommodate such commitments. [1] Employers who are unequipped to support employees with these issues risk losing key personnel as a result. This is likely to impact across the full spectrum of the workforce but employers should be particularly aware that caring responsibilities usually fall disproportionately on individuals aged 45-64 who are often entering the peak of their careers and may be senior business leaders.[2] This can lead to a negative impact in critical tiers of management.

Evidence also suggests that an ineffectual workplace support system can reduce productivity and impact employees’ career development. A recent survey by Ipsos and BITC found that 50% of working adults were reluctant to seek promotion due to a perceived inability to balance workloads with external caring responsibilities.[3] Moreover 77% of carers felt tired at work due to the demands of their duties as an unpaid carer.[4] Only by providing sufficient support for carers, can employers hope to mitigate these issues and better realise the potential of a fully engaged workforce.

A comprehensive support system for carers can also help employers to demonstrate their wider ESG credentials. Companies with a progressive ESG agenda are better able to develop new opportunities, retain talent, and attract external investment.

Carers’ rights in the workplace

Employers should be aware that carers already benefit from a number of rights in the employment context:

  • Employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous employment can make a request for flexible working during any 12 month period. Within 3 months of receipt an employer must respond in a reasonable manner and can only refuse an application based on one of 8 statutory grounds. Flexible working can mean a change in (i) the number of hours worked; (ii) when hours are worked; or (iii) the location of an employee’s workplace.
  • All employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to deal with unexpected events affecting their dependants. This right can only be exercised in respect of certain statutory-prescribed events such as where it is necessary to arrange care for a dependant who is ill or injured, or to deal with an unexpected disruption of care arrangements. The legislative definition of dependant also varies according to the type of event which has occurred.
  • Carers with parental responsibility over a minor may have the right to take parental leave. This right entitles eligible employees to take up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave for the purposes of caring for their child.

Employees may also be able to benefit from further protections if a dependant is a disabled person under the Equality Act 2010. In such circumstances, employers must not subject an employee to discrimination by reason of the disability of another person associated with them. There may also be a greater risk of indirect sex discrimination claims from female carers if an employer’s policies or practices particularly disadvantage women and cannot be objectively justified; evidence shows that women generally bear a greater responsibility for dependants in the UK – it has been estimated that women account for 65% of carers for older adults, and 85% of carers of children.[5] The risk of discrimination cases in respect of female child carers has already been recognised by Employment Tribunals[6] and it is conceivable that similar arguments could be made in respect of female carers more widely.

Employers should also be aware of the recent government proposal to introduce a new day one right for carers in the workplace to request one week’s unpaid leave to look after a child, parent, spouse or person living in the same household (subject to certain restrictions) with a long-term care need including a disability, a long-term illness or injury, or issues arising from the impact of old age. The details of the Government’s plans are set out in its September 2021 response to consultation but will not be legislated on until parliamentary time allows; this looks unlikely to be before the latter half of this year, at the earliest.

What can employers do?

Employers who want to excel in the support they provide for employees with caring responsibilities should carefully think through what assistance they could provide and what policies or practices could have maximum effectiveness and impact. Employers could, for example, consider designating a key contact in the workplace with whom employees can directly share concerns and/or seek support. They could also think about setting up an internal network group for employee carers. Giving employees a forum to voice their issues and share information to help them manage the stress of caring responsibilities is likely to be an important part of any strategy. Employers may also want to review existing policies to ensure they are both legally compliant and sufficiently flexible to accurately reflect the unpredictable and individual nature of carers’ responsibilities. This could include:

  • allowing carers access to phones at work to facilitate easy contact with their dependants if the need arises;
  • permitting more flexible working times and/or hybrid working; or
  • reserving parking spaces closer to work to help reduce journey times for carers returning home to attend dependants.

Employers should also publicise the support available to employees, who are often unaware of their rights and benefits in this space.

There has never been a better time for employers to start engaging with carers in the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced more individuals to juggle work and care, while the longer-term impact of an ageing population will also see this issue becoming increasingly relevant over the next decade. Accordingly, companies should take steps now if they want to position themselves as an “employer of choice” in this regard.