In a matter of weeks, people around the world have been forced to reconsider their home and working lives in order to slow the spread of Covid-19. Millions of people in the UK have reconfigured their daily routine to avoid travelling from their home to a workplace every day, and they now make up a nation of home workers. And while some key workers have no choice but to continue going out to their workplaces, millions of people are now balancing their job with caring for their children and home-schooling.
This change has been enormously disruptive and has required a fundamental reimagining of the way we work. Equipment, working hours and communication have all been subject to reorganistion, and these days we are used to the sight of a young child wandering in on a video call or TV interview. The changes needed to facilitate flexible working that once seemed impossible have proven possible in a very short space of time.
There are many silver linings to this crisis; perhaps this flexibility in our work-life routine will prove be one of them. It will be vital that this is not lost in the drive to get back to normal – because in life before Covid-19, inflexible work routines meant that millions could not work at all.
Currently, around five million people in the UK balance their job with caring for a family member or friend. This represents one in seven people in employment. It is likely that we all share our workplaces with someone from this army of unpaid and often invisible carers, although we may not always know it.
Unpaid carers are on the front line in the fight against Covid-19. They are fulfilling the same vital role that paid care staff do in keeping vulnerable people safe, healthy and out of hospital. While we have rightly begun to recognise the value of care staff, it has gone almost unnoticed that unpaid carers are providing an average of ten extra hours’ care each week during this crisis. This, according to research by Carers UK, has led to more than half of carers saying they are worried about burning out. If they were not taking on this additional work and stress – despite receiving little or no recognition for it – the NHS would be unable to cope.
When there is a return to usual workplaces – offices, shops, cafes – unpaid carers face a return to trying to balance doing their job alongside the constant worry about whether the person they are caring for can cope while they are away.
Every day, 600 people leave their workplaces in order to undertake caring duties. Almost half a million people have left their job to care for their older, disabled or ill relative or friend in the last two years alone. As for those unpaid carers still in the workforce, one in three say they feel anxious that their caring role will impact on their ability to work in the future.
Taking action to help carers balance a job and caring responsibilities does not always mean major changes. When asked in a survey of carers what would be most beneficial in their workplace, having a supportive manager came out on top. Flexible working and time off for caring responsibilities came in second and third place in the same survey.
The ability to fit your work around your other responsibilities can make all the difference to someone who has to balance a paid job and a caring role. Flexibility in the workplace can provide a safety net when unexpected events happen, such as when paid care staff call in sick or doctors’ appointments run late. Flexibility can also mean carers have the time they need to care for themselves. Almost three in four carers have poor mental or physical health. A compassionate employer who supports flexible working can ensure that carers have the time to look after their own health as well as the health of those they care for.
Unfortunately, the reality is that for many carers clear workplace guidance on caring while working is a luxury rather than a basic entitlement. One third of carers say their workplace has no policies in place to support them with their caring responsibilities. Many employers do not take the steps necessary to transform their working environment for the ever-increasing percentage of employees who provide unpaid care.
Creating carer-friendly workplaces should not be the responsibility of employers alone, however. Where employers fall short, it should be the role of government to step in. The current government guidance is a voluntary benchmarking scheme called Carer Confident. It does not hold businesses to account, asserts no compulsion and offers no incentives for employers to accredit themselves to the scheme. And it has certainly not had the impact needed. The scheme was one of two points aimed at supporting carers in employment in the government’s Carers Action Plan – which replaced Labour’s National Carers Strategy in 2018. We are now 18 months into this lacklustre plan, and the reality is that the government has made little progress towards improving support at work for carers.
Voluntary benchmarking alone will not ensure that carers get the support they need at work. Progress to improve the basic rights of carers in paid employment – the only other substantial point from the Carers Action Plan – has been almost non-existent.
By giving unpaid carers more statutory rights at work, we will ensure that more people are able to fit their caring responsibilities around their employment, if they choose to. Carers would be protected and supported by both their employment contract and the law. While we wait for some employers to implement their own employment policies and recognise the value that carers bring to their workplaces, it is time for the government to step up. As a carer, having basic rights to paid time off, flexible working and time away from your job if you need it can be the protection you need to keep working while providing unpaid care.
Basic rights become a crucial protection for those who juggle paid work with caring responsibilities and the rights of carers need to be improved. By strengthening these rights, we can ensure that the drive to get back to so-called normal after this crisis does not leave carers facing the same struggles as they did before.
Barbara Keeley is the member of parliament for Worsley and Eccles South.