A ‘dependent’ person is not necessarily a child – an ageing population means that many working age people have to cope with helping elderly parents, too. Peter Crush reports

healthcare

Three months ago Paul Gaudin’s father passed away. The personal adviser to the director of innovation at the NHS had worked in the care sector for more than 20 years but Gaudin admits that it wasn’t until he took on caring responsibilities in 2014 – to help his father battle Parkinson’s Disease – that he experienced for himself just how difficult it was to combine looking after a parent with working.

“You lurch from one crisis to a next ” he says. “Each day I’d probably spend up to four hours either seeing dad or dealing with stuff – such as going to and from hospitals. And that’s not including things that come up – like needing to take him twice a month to A&E because he wasn’t drinking enough and would end up getting urinary tract infections.”

He says: “Fundamentally you’re distracted and the impact all this has on productivity is obvious.”

Gaudin’s story is sad but he knows that his circumstances are by no means unusual. According to Carers UK one in nine staff (more than 3 million people)

Women shoulder a disproportionate amount of this (12.1% full-time working females now have caring responsibilities) but with more people living longer experts predict the burden on so-called working carers (unpaid carers who have normal jobs to hold down)

The direct cost to business is estimated to be around £3.5bn per year – but this only includes the cost of so-called presenteeism: being at work in body but not really there in mind. But while there are no official statistics to confirm it Gaudin – and others – say the only way employees are getting by is by masking their care by taking sickies.

“Without a shadow of a doubt they do it ” he says.

Katherine Wilson strategic manager at Carers UK’s Employers for Carers Forum adds: “Anecdotally carers say they’re using up all their annual leave just to provide care

She adds: “The trouble is this is a very bad habit to get into. Not only does this mean holiday isn’t being used for proper rest and recuperation but when staff do inevitably get ill themselves – because they are more run-down – their own sickness absence record will look worse than it really is.”

Sickies are not an answer

It’s understandable why taking a sickie is often regarded by staff as the easier route. “Because elder care in particular is ongoing rather than a one-off event like having flu or an illness

“People worry about their career prospects or whether bosses might find reasons to say that care is having an impact on their performance.” She adds: “In comparison to say

What doesn’t help absence rates is the fact working carers have no specific caring rights (unlike for example maternity or paternity leave) that are laid down in law.

While staff do have the right to request flexible working it’s not a given it will accepted and according to Nathan Combes

“It’s still the case there is more administration required with flexible working and so employers are able to turn requests down ” he says. “While there’s nothing to stop people asking for a caring-specific request

Proof that flexibility tends to be the main option given for accommodating caring is borne out by data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which reveals flexible working arrangements are by far the most common type of support (68%) followed by compassionate leave (53%) or paid/unpaid carers’ leave (48%).

Worryingly though only one in six employers have organisation-wide policies for carers with two-fifths saying that what support they do offer is on an ad hoc basis.

Tackling the issue

Some employers believe a much broader approach to dealing with staff who care is needed. One in particular is Wiltshire-based Novum Law. It recently scooped a bronze certificate in the first Working for Carers awards for its commitment in supporting staff with caring tasks.

Its director Huw Ponting believes there is a clear link between sickness absence and care responsibilities and so it wants to develop more of an adult conversation about how staff can be helped. One of its policies is to encourage staff to use annual leave for actual holidays not caring.

“Our practice works specifically in the area of medical negligence and we see the burden that failed interventions place on families. As such we work hard to create a culture where staff can talk about the commitments they may have. We know it can be a stigma acknowledging a caring role so we try to take the embarrassment out of it by aiming to understand what staff have going on at home.”

He says: “Because we don’t want staff being sick we encourage them to use holiday allowances for that and restrict buying and selling holiday to a maximum of three days a year.” He adds: “We’d much rather come to an arrangement where staff work from home or change their hours than have sick days be pulled.”

Ponting says typical arrangements might be an alteration in hours where people have regular commitments – such as nine-day fortnights with the other hours made up. In some instances official hours may have to be reduced

It’s clear though that employers do need more inventive solutions. “We want to see much more use of things like career breaks with keep-in-touch days

And on this latter offering in particular Carers UK’s Wilson says employers do not need to worry that there will be a stampede of staff trying to take it up. “We know companies like Centrica already offer it – matching half a day’s care with half a day’s leave – but even though staff can get up to a month’s leave a year this way

Helping staff incorporate new technology could be one area where employers can offer a different form of assistance and it’s thanks to Gaudin himself that there is a new offering now available.

“When I first became a carer one of the first things I realised was just how much time I’d spend running around ” he recalls. “I’d be repeating the same information to different members of my family each time someone new called. I could see something was needed to try and get back some of the time I knew I was wasting.”

To combat this he created a private social network where he could post updates to family and friends about his father’s condition

Now this network has been formerly launched – it’s called Tutella (also with a call centre where worried carers can get more one-to-one advice)

“There’s the immediate benefit of staff suffering less stress by having all the information they need to share with family already out there ” he says.

“But in addition to this it really does save time. I was testing it while my dad was ill and I cut the amount of time I needed to devote to ‘stuff’ from four hours a day to around half an hour – that’s an amazing amount of extra time that employers can win back. Staff will also be less frazzled

Exploring solutions

Other technology is being looked at too. This time next year the Institute for Employment Studies will be showcasing the results of a pilot project it has been tasked with assessing for the Social Care Institute. Under way now

IES’s Wilson says: “A strong component of the trial will be looking at the benefit ‘assistive technology’ brings – things that can give employees peace of mind while they are actually at work.

These include panic buttons but also placing sensors around doormats that will trigger an alert if the person leaves the house. It’s often the case that people with dementia

Just how responsive employers will be to consider ‘care-based’ flexible working remains to be seen. To the unenlightened dealing with care requests may be regarded as yet another area of people’s private lives being brought into the workplace.

However Combes has a warning: “There is case law that employers need to be aware of – in particular the case of Truman vs Bibby from July last year.”

He explains: “The claimant who had received good appraisals indicated to his employer that he would need to spend more time caring for his daughter

Combes adds: “What’s important here is that the employee was able to claim ‘associated discrimination’ because the employer hadn’t tried to accommodate his caring needs.” In effect the discrimination had occurred because adjustments had not been made for individuals who have an association with a disabled person.

This should be a cautionary tale. Morag Livingston group risk and healthcare manager at Secondsight says: “At the moment it seems to be more acceptable to look after young people than the elderly. But in trying to look after their elderly or sick relatives

“What employers need to remember is that it’s by pretending to be sick that creates the most issues for teams because this is when people are left to mop up and manage workloads. What it all boils down to is the level of flexibility on offer.