Helen Smith: Why caring commitments impact health and wellbeing

helen smith

For those with family and caring commitments, balancing the often-conflicting elements of work and life can be a major cause of stress and mental health issues. Financial problems, loss of sleep, relationship breakdowns and many other triggers can affect emotional wellbeing, and all of this can in turn impact on an employee’s overall health, lowering immune resistance and leading to a cycle of illness and low wellbeing. These issues can, of course, have a consequential impact on employers and businesses, too.

Work-life balance, especially among those who have family and caring commitments, has therefore become one of the biggest challenges faced by individuals and organisations in today’s working environment.

To help more employers understand the challenges their employees with family and caring commitments are facing, how this can impact their business and what they can do to better support this group of workers, we conducted research with full-time and part-time employees who have family and caring commitments across a range of sectors and age groups.

The research was done via survey during August 2018, and canvassed the responses of 1,084 respondents between the ages of 25 and 50 who are employed and care for children (799 respondents) or elderly or sick relatives (568 respondents).

A growing issue

More than three million people in the UK now juggle work with caring commitments for elderly or sick loved ones, and the number of employed mothers with dependent children in England has surged. Meanwhile, many working parents are in a situation where they are likely to become carers for their own parents in the near future.

Evidently, more and more employees are being pulled in many different directions, and the pressure of having to balance multiple responsibilities while working can cause a very real strain on their mental and physical wellbeing.

The cost to employers

Our research found that respondents take an average of 5.3 days off work a year due to family reasons, not including maternity or paternity leave. This is higher than the average number of sick days among UK employees, which is 4.1, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in July 2018.

Based on the 2017 ONS average salary of £29,009 with 252 working days, including 20 days’ holiday, this equates to a cost of £618 in lost time for every employee with caring commitments.

This figure does not account for the amount of sick days that employees are using up for the same family and caring reasons, as 31% said they had taken a sick day if they were refused flexibility by their employer.

Stress and low resilience leading the health problems will only be adding to the likelihood that employees will need sick leave. Furthermore, we heard in our interviews that many employees would turn up to work when they were actually ill, because they had ‘used up’ their sick days for family reasons.

This clearly illustrates the pressure that employees are under to balance work and home-life, to the detriment of their own health, and that of those around them in the workplace too.

Affecting productivity

Almost three-quarters (75%) of employees surveyed said that they find balancing their family commitments with work ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’. These results were relatively consistent across differing age ranges, genders, and between both full-time and part-time employees.

So, it is really no wonder that 86% of these employees said they’d experienced stress. Furthermore, over a third (36%) had experienced mental health issues as a result of trying to balance work with family and caring commitments.

This can also have a negative impact for employers too, because stressed and unwell employees are less likely to perform productively when they are present at work.

How should employers approach the problem?

In order to keep employees engaged, and prevent avoidable costs through absenteeism, staff turnover and reduced productivity, organisations should take time to understand their workers’ circumstances, and see how they could adopt a more accommodating and supportive culture.

Helen Smith is chief commercial officer and business sponsor for wellbeing strategy at Benenden Health