How do you manage children, elderly dependents and work, all while taking some time for your own mental wellbeing? Helen Swire investigates
Whether it’s a baby, a teenager, a live-at-home student, an ill partner or an elderly parent – or a combination – British employees have more care responsibilities than ever: and these pressures are having an impact at work as well as at home.
“The changing nature of family dynamics is placing real pressure on those having to provide support to more than one generation within their family unit,” warns David Walker, chief commercial officer at Personal Group. “These individuals are juggling a plethora of financial priorities, from paying down their mortgage to saving for their children’s education, as well as saving for their own retirement, maintaining a career and supporting ageing parents.”
With mental health issues costing the UK economy £15bn per year in lost productivity, this juggling act executed by carers is only adding to stress in the workforce, and making it even harder for the squeezed ‘sandwich generation’ to be present and focused at work.
“Employees facing personal worries and various pressures outside of work are likely to be more distracted in the workplace,” adds Walker. “Businesses are feeling the impact of poor emotional, physical and financial wellbeing and the potential effect it can have on productivity and engagement.”
As organisations increasingly feel this impact, it is crucial that they respond to the needs of employees with care responsibilities at either end of the age spectrum – or both.
While flexible working and shared parental leave are now on the agenda for all, the greatest challenge for working parents is often rooted in job design – and how this can conflict with childcare design.
“Childcare is still very much a case of nine-to-five care on weekdays, and there’s a lack of flexibility in how it’s delivered,” says Julia Waltham, head of policy and campaigns at campaign organisation Working Families. “People are working in very different ways nowadays, and so the lack of flexible jobs and the availability of childcare are key issues.”
With very little time for themselves – especially for those who have dual caring responsibilities – parents and carers can find it hard to balance the needs of both family and job: let alone time for their own needs and down time.
The result? A generation in the workplace whose own wellbeing is not their first priority: with the obvious impact on productivity and health.
Waltham champions the role of line managers in starting the conversation around making sure employees’ needs are met. She says: “Often parents are impressed with the work-life balance opportunity that their employer offers, but are actually unhappy with their own work-life balance!
“Employers need to make sure that all managers understand requests to work flexibly and demonstrate that they are able to be flexible.”
But many organisations also need to examine how they deal with the basics of supporting working parents.
“There’s a lot of box-ticking with diversity and inclusion these days, but really do parents genuinely feel supported?” asks Isabelle Campbell, wellbeing consultant at chartered accountants’ wellbeing charity CABA.
“Often employers have the unconscious bias that makes them assume that after having a baby mothers will want to work flexibly, so won’t consider them for certain roles or development. That bias is what creates the problems: if someone asks to go part time, or work flexibly, that doesn’t mean they don’t have career aspirations.”
Campbell accepts that part of the challenge for employers when trying to support working parents is that many of them will simply not know what they want or need from their return to work until they are on maternity leave – or even until they return to work.
“It’s a difficult balance for employers,” she acknowledges. “But they need to think about how to open up a route for women to discuss their careers post-break, but with no pressure on them to make instant decisions.”
And, of course, it’s not just about mothers: shared parental leave enables eligible mothers, fathers and partners to choose how to share time off work after their child is born, which could include returning to work for part of the time and then resuming leave at a later date.
However, so far it has had a limited impact: “It’s not well paid enough [the current rate is £140.98 per week], and some feel it’s not much more than transferable maternity leave,” says Waltham. “There are significant barriers to take-up that need to be overcome before it thrives. We’re calling for a properly paid, standalone period of leave for fathers.”
Nonetheless, the issues of childcare have the benefit of long-standing visibility in the workforce. A potentially greater issue is that of eldercare, and invisible carers.
While officially there are 6.4 million carers in the UK, Simplyhealth puts the figure at nearer 24 million: including all those people who aren’t registered carers but who look after a parent, partner or elderly dependent on a regular basis.
These people deal with perhaps mundane but nevertheless time-consuming activities such as hospital appointments and grocery shopping, or may be responsible for overseeing official care, for example choosing a nursing home or a home help programme.
The statistics around those affected should be a worry to employers: according to Simplyhealth, 71% of carers feel lonely and isolated at work and 40% find it puts a strain on their professional relationship. Moreover, 22% of carers use annual leave to fulfil their caring responsibilities.
“The need for support for carers is only just being recognised,” says Raman Sankaran, sales and marketing director at Simplyhealth. “There is a need for a cultural shift towards acceptance and a proactive conversation about how employers can support these pressures facing people.”
Christine Husbands, managing director at RedArc, agrees: “It’s so stressful having that caring responsibility and having limited time – if you can spend time getting things sorted out without worrying about your job, that’s far better.
“Some employers are starting to realise that, and realise the importance of helping employees in that situation: but many are not, and are still quite resistant to it – but if an employer can be sympathetic and flexible and work with an individual, they are going to get much more out of them.”
The conversation and culture shift is vital, but what working carers really need is practical support. Whether it’s partnering with carers’ charities and networks or promoting national awareness days in the workplace, an investment of time and resource in the practical side is invaluable.
Areas of practical support include:
- How to make home changes to support a dependent in staying at home and independent, e.g. physical equipment
- Legal advice
- Financial advice, e.g. what benefits and financial entitlements are available, and
- Help navigating social services and accessing assessments
“There are various areas where people want support when caring for elderly dependents,” says Sankaran. “They want to know about trusted tradespeople, for example, or to meet with people who are or have been in similar caring situations.”
And it’s also about a practical approach to the emotional side of the issue. “The impact is massive – it can almost be a grieving process of anger, guilt: a complex emotional time, as well as a huge responsibility and burden,” warns Husbands.
“Employers have to think about helping employees in these situations help themselves: if they’re not keeping well and getting some respite, they can easily go downhill rapidly.”
Husbands and Campbell both believe that writing a carer policy into a family-friendly policy is crucial to support those with these responsibilities: whether through insurance, an employee assistance programme, or simply conversations and guidance from line managers.
A cultural change
“There are a number of ways businesses can support this sandwich generation, and fortunately, many of the initiatives are in the best interests of both employer and employee,” says Personal Group’s Walker. “An integrated strategy, which addresses the emotional, physical and financial wellbeing of staff and encourages a culture of reward and recognition, can increase productivity and reduce absence.”
But ultimately, businesses need a culture of openness if they are to get anywhere in helping working parents, carers or the sandwich generation.
Walker adds: “Businesses must prioritise mechanisms to listen to feedback and for colleagues to speak openly. A flexible working environment, ongoing dialogue, compassionate leave and awareness of your employees’ lives might all seem like small steps individually, but together they can make a huge difference.”
And companies must be ready for change, accepting that the workforce demographic is changing and ageing, and bringing all kinds of care considerations with it.
“Life expectancy is increasing. People have portfolio careers. It’s only now that all these things are being thought about – and from a government and social care point of view it’s hard to know where to start provisioning for all of that,” says CABA’s Campbell.
“It’s hard to predict where the change is going to be, but it’s expensive in turnover and recruitment if you’re not flexible enough. Pre-empting the change, or reacting early, rather than just watching it happen, will help build a strategy for the future.”