For employees with care responsibilities or coping with bereavement, an understanding employer is a key pillar of support. Liz Walker, HR director at Unum, examines what companies can do to help


The UK has recently marked Carers’ Week – an important step in recognising that more and more people in the workforce have care responsibilities in some form or another, and so deal with the attendant stress and concerns this raises.

And caring isn’t just about looking after someone on a regular basis – it’s also often about helping people through the really big issues, from cancer to bereavement.

Unum is currently giving support as both an employee benefits provider, and also to its own employees – supplementing insurance products through emotional support and focusing on the individual and their mental health.

From a bereavement standpoint, for example, we’ve been working with St Catherine’s Hospice to put together an online tool to help workplaces cope better with bereavement.

It’s an area that employers are still learning how to handle: some already have great policies in place, but many are asking for additional support on how to put policies into practice.

Our online bereavement tool has had some really positive feedback so far: it’s helped to start conversations that people weren’t necessarily comfortable having before, and has got people talking about what they could do to support employees.

Similarly, normalising the discussion around cancer is key: it’s a difficult topic for employers to broach, but as it becomes a growing problem in the workplace we are encouraging employers to understand what their employees need. Unum works with Maggie’s, the cancer charity, to help employers understand how to better cope with cancer in the workplace.

Together we run dedicated workshops for employers, focusing on how they can support their staff more efficiently. These are held at Maggie’s centres nationwide, ensuring we reach as many people as we can across the UK.

Often it’s about understanding that people don’t necessarily want to be wrapped in cotton wool – having a normal routine, being at work and being engaged can actually help the recovery process in some instances. Everyone copes with cancer in their own way and it’s so important to keep a regular dialogue going between the line manager and the employee to ensure the right support is provided.

There are now about 3 million employees in the UK who combine working with caring responsibilities. Juggling working and caring can be hard to manage and may put huge strains on employees. A workplace wellbeing strategy can help ease some of these strains, through training and resources, such as an EAP. At Unum, we provide our customers and employees access to AgeingWorks, which provides positive advice and eldercare support to staff and their families.

Normalising those conversations and putting support in place has an impact not just on employees but on the company as a whole: an engaged workforce who feel more cared for and supported is going to be more productive and drive business results.

And the link to mental wellness is increasingly clear. Often those suffering a serious physical illness may also suffer mental health problems too. If managers are able to identify those early signs and provide support, they can step in and prevent the situation from deteriorating.

Training your line managers in how to support their staff and informing them what tools they have at their disposal to do this is vital. This will really make your support arrangements effective, bringing your company policies to life and actually ensuring they work in practice.

However, from our experience we have found a significant number of line managers do not get this training. Unum is trying to change this, both for the companies we work with and our own line managers.

Without the proper support in place, and without the power of managerial understanding of the situation, companies won’t just see disengagement, they are also likely to see higher levels of sickness absence and staff turnover.

Creating a business strategy to meet your employee needs is vital, but it goes beyond having a corporate strategy or a company line.

It really comes down to the investment you make in equipping and empowering your people managers to deal with these issues in their workforce – because it’s the first line of defence in that support.

For more details on carers in the UK or other HR issues, visit www.unum.

Unum logo