Supporting staff with caring responsibilities is good for business

Building on new legislation to offer support to staff with caring responsibilities can have numerous business benefits for employers, says Vicki Taylor

Never before has there been such a great focus on employees’ caring responsibilities outside of the workplace. While the right to request flexible working has existed for working parents since 2003, it is now being extended to staff with wider caring responsibilities under new legislation from April.

Currently working parents with children who are aged under six years, or up to 18 years if disabled, have the right to request a change in working hours or patterns under the Employment Act 2002. But from April this right will be extended under the Work and Families Act 2006, forcing employers to seriously consider requests from employees who have caring responsibilities for someone they are married to, are the partner or civil partner of, are a near relative of, or who lives at the same address.

The definition of a near relative includes: parents, parents-in-law, adult children, adopted adult children, siblings (including those who are in-laws), uncles, aunts or grandparents, and step-relatives.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, the new legislation extends the right to a further 2.65m million employees in the UK from the 3.6m who are currently eligible to request a change in their working hours or patterns, including job-sharing and working from home. The DTI estimates that of these new carers only 1.5m will make a request. Requests can be refused by employers if there is a good business reason. However, according to the DTI’s Flexible working employee survey 2005, 81% of requests were fully or partly accepted by employers, compared to 77% prior to the introduction of the right in 2003.

Danielle Kingdon, a partner at law firm Osborne Clarke, believes the majority of employers are unprepared for the extension of the right. It is likely that many have instead focused on new rules around increased maternity and paternity leave, which also take effect in April and are contained in the 2006 Act.

“First of all, [employers should] start with preparing a proper policy that makes it clear as to the rights people have to request to work flexible hours. What they should be doing is not just writing that and sticking it on a website somewhere, [but] actually training managers as to how to meet these requests so that they are dealing with them fairly and responsibly,” she warns.

While the new legislation is forcing some employers to change their policies, many leading organisations already recognise the challenges faced by employees with caring responsibilities and operate schemes to support them. Measures can include provision for taking leave at short notice, keeping a database of local care services and supplying access to advice through an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Una Summerson, action for carers in employment national policy officer at Contact a Family, a charity for families with disabled children, explains: “People who care for sick or disabled children have very stressful lives. In a lot of cases, extra stress is caused by trying to get access to services [or] co-ordinating hospital appointments.”

Maggy Mead-King, head of services and communication at work-life balance organisation Working Families, agrees and says that employers can offer plenty of help over and above statutory requirements that will be valued by staff with caring responsibilities. These include carers’ support groups where staff can meet to share their experiences. “[They might also have] policies like [emergency] leave for people who have caring responsibilities,” she says.

Organisations taking the lead in this area have found that there are clear business benefits of doing so. A 2005 study by Working Families, A report on absenteeism and work-life balance, found that caring issues were the second most cited reason for staff absence by HR and personnel professionals, alongside work-life balance. Policies such as providing a set number of emergency days leave for carers can help cut absence figures.

Emily Holzhausen, head of policy and public affairs at Carers UK, an organisation that aims to protect carers’ rights, says: “There are a number of ways that people manage their lives. One is to take sick leave when they are not sick, the other is to basically leave their job [to care for dependants].”

However, she adds that reduced sickness absence is not the only potential business benefit. “One business [we deal with] looked at homeworking for some of its employees and the result was that they managed to save money in office space. Another offered different times that people could work because of their caring responsibilities and managed to extend their services – before it was [open] 9am until 5pm and now they [open] into the evening. What they have found is that there have been unexpected business benefits.”

Employers should also remember that some caring responsibilities will only be short term so being understanding and sensitive to these individuals’ needs will pay dividends in the future by boosting their loyalty and commitment to the organisation.

“It can sometimes be a very short period where people need flexibility because, after all, if an elderly parent or a partner is terminally ill [staff] want to be with them but it is not going to go on forever,” says Mead-King.

Of course, other situations such as caring for a disabled child are more long term and with people now living longer, caring responsibilities are likely to play an even bigger part in more employees’ lives in the future. The Commission for Social Care Inspection’s report, The state of social care in England 2005-06, published in January 2007, found that more responsibility is being placed on individuals and their families to pay for their own care, with carers bearing the burden of a decrease in public services. The report also estimates that in 20 years time, the number of people needing care will have increased by 53%.

The issue of eldercare has become a focus of attention for providers, many of whom are hoping the government will introduce tax breaks on products that help employees to pay for care for elderly dependents.

Chris Cain, managing director at independent care advisers Grace Consulting, explains that his company has begun to market its care home search services to organisations as an employee benefit. A consultation can be carried out with the person in need of care services, and options found to fit their needs, for around £550, or £375 if the services are provided by telephone.

He believes that employers may increasingly be willing to subsidise or even pay these costs in full for their staff. “Employers have not really picked up the reins of this yet. It is a major happening in people’s lives and if it can be smoothed through for a couple of hundred pounds, I think employers would increasingly say that they will contribute something to this,” Cain adds.

Lynne Keeble, product manager, childcare vouchers at Accor Services, is also hoping that new tax breaks on eldercare will be introduced. However, she believes the market will need to come together more as a network in order to work out where vouchers would be redeemable, because the help elderly people may require can range from gardening services to in-home care. “Flexible working is a good start and is pushing the issue up the agenda, but if employers can actually support carers financially as well then that is going to have a huge impact,” she adds.

If employers do start to provide eldercare help alongside other benefits for carers, one concern they may have is that other staff without caring responsibilities will feel hard done by. In the case of flexible working arrangements, one way to potentially address this is to extend the right to request a change in working hours and patterns to the entire organisation. Another is to work at changing the culture of the business so that people understand why colleagues with caring responsibilities might need to have more flexibility and access to other benefit, says Summerson. “It is about changing the culture. Often other people in the workplace don’t understand their [colleagues’] particular caring responsibilities. Very often, it might seem that they are taking time off here and there [in an ad-hoc way]. The nature of caring for a disabled child, for example, means there are emergencies that arise. It is promoting that openness so people can feel they can talk about their home life and not feel people might be judging them.”

Support from staff

Holzhausen agrees, but acknowledges that people often don’t want to talk about their home situation. “The thing about caring is that it is often an intensely private matter. If your son has schizophrenia and he has been very ill, it is not something you necessarily share with your colleagues or manager.”

Instead, employers should explain to the entire workforce what a carer is and raise it as a specific issue, rather than rolling any new policy for carers into other general policies. “If you tell people about it and say ‘this is how it is for some employees’, you get much better understanding, co-operation and support from colleagues, as well as more people coming forward to actually use the flexible working policies rather than taking sick leave or stopping work,” Holzhausen adds.

Nicola Brown, an associate at law firm Thomas Eggar, says that companies would also do well to start promoting the needs of fathers in the workplace. The details of a provision under the Work and Families Act to allow fathers to take some of the maternity leave not used by their partner are still being debated. However, Brown believes this could cause problems because the father’s employer will have to correspond with the HR department of the organisation where the mother is employed to obtain proof that she has returned to work. “At the moment, the detail [has not been] decided so there is no point in employers trying to prepare because it could all change. It is never too early to start the cultural change [though]. Obviously, the law hasn’t come in yet, but it is, and it is better to wake up to it sooner rather than later.”

While raising awareness of the benefits available to carers, employers may also want to highlight any perks they provide that can help all employees if caring responsibilities arise. One example is critical illness cover for employees and their partners, which pays out a lump sum in the event that an individual is diagnosed with one of the covered conditions. Nicola Cohen, communications manager, group risk at Bupa, says: “It is purchased in the main on a pre-existing condition basis. It is there in the event that the individual gets a condition and can no longer work or fulfil their caring responsibilities, either in full or in part, and the money could be used to say ‘bring in temporary [care] cover’ or whatever they like.”

Many employers also provide income protection for staff, which is typically given as part of a core package, and pays up to 75% of salary a month. “If organisations aren’t providing income protection then staff are really going to struggle in the event of ill health and their caring responsibilities, like paying for their child’s nursery school fees,” she adds.

Paul Moulten, director of corporate sales at Axa PPP Healthcare, says that EAPs can be particularly valuable to people with caring responsibilities, especially if they provide services like emergency childcare advice. Private medical insurance can also help staff to receive treatment quickly, meaning that they are able to return to providing care.

With an increasing range of benefits that can be used to support staff with caring responsibilities, more is likely to be expected of employers.


  • One-in-eight UK adults are carers, totalling around six million people.
  • More than three million people in the UK juggle caring responsibilities with work.
  • More than one million people care for more than one person. 58% of carers are women and 42% are men.
  • By 2037, the number of carers is set to increase to nine million.


Case study: County council gets ahead of new rules

Hertfordshire County Council has offered a range of support services and benefits for employees with caring responsibilities since 2002.

It is already ahead of the requirements due to be brought in by the Work and Families Act in April as it allows all staff to request to work flexibly.

Other support tools on offer include: a carers’ support network, facilitated by an independent charity, which meets every other month, discounted nursery places, childcare vouchers offered through salary sacrifice, an employee assistance programme that offers information and advice for carers, and up to five paid days emergency leave a year.

Jo Brown, senior HR officer, says the policies were established because of the benefits they bring to the organisation. “If you look at our workforce profile, over 80% is female and we work in a difficult recruitment market. A lot of people live in Hertfordshire but travel into London [to work], so we need to make sure that we are attractive as an employer to as broad a base of people as [possible].”

The council also runs an annual carers’ conference attended by around 80 staff. It uses this as a platform to inform carers about the policies it has and to gather feedback. One year, this resulted in a training CD-Rom being developed for line managers after feedback suggested that staff didn’t have a very good understanding of what it means to be a carer.