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Care home

Carers' leave could be life-changing for millions

2.8 million more workers have become unpaid carers since the start of the crisis. They need more support to juggle caring and work.

Our Senior Programme Manager for Work, Patrick Thomson, argues that government proposals on carers leave are a positive step, but more needs to be done to ensure people aren't pushed out of the workforce.

Combining paid work with caring for a family member or friend can be tough, something which a growing number of people have been finding out over the last few months. Carers UK estimate that, pre-pandemic, there were around 5 million adults juggling work and unpaid care – 1 in 7 of all workers and since the crisis, another 2.8 million working carers have joined them. That’s more than the total workforce of London, Birmingham, and Greater Manchester combined.

With more of us living and working for longer the need to balance work with caring for others has become even more important. The need to care for loved ones may happen at any stage of life, but you are most likely to be a working carer in mid-life  when you might juggling work with caring for older relatives, partners or children. This is particularly the case for women, and for many women this is happening right in the middle of their careers when they might be 20 years from retirement. If not supported, it can hamper progression at work and is a key factor in the widening of the gender pay gap in mid-life.

I remember being told by an employer that supporting a carer ‘costs too much’. But instead of asking what it costs to support them, the more significant question for any business is ‘what will it cost if I lose them?’ Recent research published by Carers UK suggests that as many as 600 people a day could be leaving paid employment due to caring responsibilities. A 2016 study found that women aged between 50 and 75 who took on a caregiving role (more than 10 hours per week) while working full-time were almost 5 times as likely to leave work as women providing no care; women in this age group working part-time were almost 3 times as likely to leave the labour market.

Some employers are recognising this and taking action. I have been delighted to join the NHS Flexible Working Reference Group, dedicated to making flexible working work for the NHS’s 1.3 million employees. There is a clear understanding at all levels of the organisation that there is a business, operational, and moral case for good flexible working for retaining, supporting and attracting our health workforce. This week saw the publication of the NHS People Plan where huge strides have been made to promote flexible working. It commits to flexibility by default, available from day one, enabled by e-rostering and role-modelling from the top.

While many employers are already taking a lead we also need collective action and support from government. New plans to introduce a right to a period of time off to care, currently being consulted on by government, are a positive step for all of us.

80% of carers thought additional paid Carer’s Leave of between five and ten days would help them to juggle work and unpaid care.

To continue to balance work and care, people need an affordable and reliable social care system as well as flexibility and support at work. Carers UK found that 80% of carers thought additional paid Carer’s Leave of between five and ten days would help them to juggle work and unpaid care. Research carried out by Sheffield University and CIPD found that among working carers who indicated that no forms of support were available to them, paid care leave was the most commonly desired form of support, followed by flexitime and the ability to work at home on some days.

The government proposal is for employees to have a right to take up to 5 days unpaid time off to care. This could be taken in relation to care for someone with a disability or long-term health need who is a spouse or civil partner, child, a parent, a person who lives in the same household as the employee or someone else who reasonably relies on the employee for care. The time could be taken in half days or full days or in a 5 day block.

Ageing Better has responded positively to the government’s proposals and it is encouraging the new right to be available from day one of employment. We would like to see this become a paid right and are encouraging the government to revisit their decision for the short-term leave to be unpaid as soon as possible and to also move ahead with consulting on proposals for a longer period of unpaid leave of six months.

You can read the government’s full proposals and share your views on how this should be implemented until the 3rd of August

Supporting carers back into work: Insights from the Working Potential project

Read more
Patrick Thomson
Senior Programme Manager – Fulfilling work