Many UK employees are supporting their children as well as elderly parents. Helen Swire asks how employers can help them to manage their responsibilities and still be effective at work


When you’re at work, where is your mind? Is it focused fully on the task in hand? Imagine that you also have a child off school sick, or are spending evenings choosing care homes for an elderly parent. You might simply be managing the school run rota with a partner or other parents.

The minute these responsibilities come into play, employees’ attention is automatically diverted at least in part from their work – and they could be undergoing significant stress because of care obligations at home.

“Our work around mental health and occupational health has moved into ‘presenteeism’: people are at work while their minds are elsewhere,” says Brian Hall, managing director, BHSF Employee Benefits. “The sandwich generation is being squeezed on both sides – for example, elderly parents in and out of care and children needing attention at the same time.”

So how can employers help? Over the past couple of years, the question mark around the introduction of tax-free childcare (TFC) has led to employers being reticent about making any changes to their current childcare provision.

It now seems likely that the first roll-out of TFC will happen at the beginning of 2017, with a gradual scale-up process, from provision for newborns to cover for all children under the age of 12 (or disabled dependents up to the age of 17).

However, until the full roll-out is complete, employer-funded childcare, for example vouchers, will still be open for companies to take advantage of. According to Iain McMath, the chief executive of Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, the government has suggested (although not in writing) that if people find that their employer-funded care works better for them than TFC, they will be able to switch back during the roll-out period.

While this may please the detractors who believe that TFC will leave employees worse off, the continuing ambiguity has done little to encourage employers to put a consistent plan in place.

Nonetheless, childcare vouchers are far from the last word in supporting employees with care responsibilities – but organisations must know what their staff need if they are to help them with those outside obligations.

Know your audience

“There’s a move now towards companies trying to personalise their interactions with their staff,” says McMath. “Whereas it used to be a case of one-size-fits-all, there’s now a realisation that you employ individuals, not clones.”

The key message to companies is the overwhelming importance of talking to their workforce: from understanding the care responsibilities your individual staff have to making sure they understand the rules and processes involved, effective communication is key to implementing a successful support programme.

Regarding childcare vouchers and TFC, employers should ensure their staff have all the relevant signposting to where they can access the vouchers (if they are provided) and also to websites that can help them calculate their costs and requirements in terms of financial support.

But how can employers pose the broader questions about personal needs? As with many benefits, a catalyst for the discussion is often workshops and seminars around the problems and solutions for carers: however, there is also a growing need for a more personal interaction.

In a world where more and more support is becoming the employer’s responsibility (pensions and healthcare both spring to mind), the duty is often devolving to HR or line managers.

“People are coming forward to their line managers and talking about care issues, but there’s still a fear and a stigma around being a carer, and that’s got to change,” argues Rob Dolbear, managing director of time4care. “We encourage managers to do simple staff surveys to understand what issues people have to deal with.”

Julian Foster, managing director at Computershare UK, adds: “There’s a growing recognition that there are generational difference in expectations – for example, Generation X men have an expectation that they will be able to play a part in the care of their child, while millennials are different again.

“Employers know that they need to evolve and recognise that people have a life outside work – and that they need to help them to achieve a healthy balance.”

A flexible approach

In fact, Computershare itself was recognised as one of the ‘Top 30 Employers for Working Families 2015’ by the charity Working Families, which Foster attributes in part to the company’s flexible working practices.

“It’s not just about childcare vouchers, although those are a great benefit and really helpful to families. The best employees have rounded existences – and employers need to make sure that they can balance work and home,” he says.

“When you do that you have a happier, healthier and more committed workforce, who can work harder and achieve more. Enlightened employers can help to drive productivity by encouraging flexible working practices.”

Whether it’s about allowing staff members to arrive and finish earlier or enabling them to work remotely when they need to, employers have the peace of mind that their staff are focused during working hours because they can more easily manage any stress-inducing and distracting family responsibilities.

And as the battle for talent starts to intensify for the first time since the 2008 recession, any concerns about the cost or administration of allowing your people to work flexibly to support their needs should be far outweighed by the importance of staff retention and the cost associated with recruitment and training of new workers.

The technology now exists to facilitate this flexible approach, and also to make out-of-office work productivity measurable.

More than that, employer technology offerings can help staff with the easy – and 24/7 – management of care through apps. BHSF, for example, offers Connect: an app that puts everything from numbers for legal advice to keep-fit programmes at employees’ fingertips.

This approach is now expanding beyond the basic wellness offering says Hall, BHSF: “At the tap of their phone employees can look up issues around eldercare, social support and so on, and find the relevant contact details for experts who can provide guidance on what to do. Employers can now facilitate that really cheaply and easily for their staff.”

Emergency call-out

Of course, it is all well and good to have a flexible work policy and process in place – but this does not necessarily account for emergency situations.

For example, you may have a policy for carers or those with dependents, but there may be people with commitments to elderly relatives who may not classify themselves as carers. Or a parent might start early and leave early to do the school run – but this won’t help if their child is off school sick.

Statistics from My Family Care show that working parents have, on average, eight ‘emergency care’ situations a year: and while much of managing this comes down to being an understanding and accommodating employer, emergency arrangements are also key.

“Emergency childcare systems are limited,” says Sodexo’s McMath. “We’ll be doing more evaluation of what is available – and also looking at how employers can recommend places to parents.”

Many nurseries are closing because of staffing difficulties in providing the current statutory free 15 hours childcare a week – so with the government plan to raise childcare hours to 30 hours a week, there is likely to be a fight for nursery places. “That’s when companies may need to consider things like running their own crèche,” suggests McMath.

And with an ageing population, it’s no longer mostly those with children who can be struck with a care emergency: whether it’s finding a nursing home, arranging powers of attorney or organising hospital appointments, employees with elderly parents or relatives can suddenly find themselves with unexpected – and highly stressful – commitments.

This is a relatively new area for companies to get to grips with – however, time4care’s Dolbear is positive that both employers and the government are recognising the need to support employees with eldercare issues.

“Employer attitudes are lagging behind the reality, both in terms of recognising the need and also in realising that older workers who have eldercare needs can’t just be replaced by younger workers,” Dolbear comments. “However, attitudes are changing slowly but surely, and things are moving in the right direction.”

For Dolbear, it is predominantly line managers’ understanding of needs and the ability to be flexible that is required, particularly when unexpected situations arise for staff members.

Nonetheless, there are companies that can work with employees to make their eldercare priorities – time4care, for example, offers four strands of advice: care, funding, property and legal.

Organisations such as Employers for Carers are also now helping companies address the care issue with their staff and raise it up the agenda.

As Dolbear says: “If companies show a commitment and can say to staff that they’re aware of the problems, that takes away the concerns that people feel about raising an issue.”

The equality issue

As well as looking at solutions to care issues, employers are examining exactly who these solutions should be aimed at.

The number of men now taking shared parental leave is growing in line with the changing generational expectations. Computershare’s Foster says: “While in many families the woman is still regarded as the primary carer, there will soon be a shift in the dynamic to it simply being the person in the family who is most economically viable for to take time off work to look after the family.”

Perceptions are changing – but it is a fundamental shift in company culture that can and will drive better support for employees with care needs. And for those organisations that don’t move with the times, the war for talent could be problematic.

“It’s all about company values. If a company does not value honesty, integrity and transparency, then they’re not going to be that interested in people,” says McMath. “As we move towards full employment, those are the companies that will be exposed, and people will realise that yes, actually, they can move job – they’re not tied to an employer because there are other opportunities out there.”

With an open and honest company culture, employees can feel more at ease discussing their needs with managers, and so employers will be able to support those needs rather than worry about unexplained absences.

Understanding and flexibility are the key to support – supporting your ‘work families’ will help them to support their own.