LRD Booklets April 2007

Carers in the workplace - a guide to negotiating flexible working and leave


There are around six million carers - people responsible for the care and support of disabled, elderly or sick partners, relatives or friends, as opposed to those with normal parenting responsibilities - in the UK, and more than three million of them juggle care with paid work. This means that around one in eight people in any workplace may be a carer and in effect trying to meet the needs of two jobs.

According to the campaign and advice organisation Carers UK, three in five people will become carers at some time in their lives, often at short notice.

And demographic changes mean that there will be an increasing number of people trying to combine work with caring for elderly people: a quarter of the UK's population will be over 65 by 2035, and already there are approximately as many people aged over 80 as there are children under five.

The proportion of workers aged 45 or over is already increasing, and they are the group who tend to have caring responsibilities for older people. A 2006 report by the Flexible Employment Options Project, a research initiative led by Staffordshire University, showed that employees aged 45-plus need more support for looking after elderly relatives than for childcare, and it has been predicted that caring for ageing parents will have replaced childcare as the major work-life issue by 2020.

At the same time, it is predicted that the UK economy will need an additional two million workers in the next 20 years - but school or college leavers will only account for a quarter of these, so employers will need to recruit more older workers at the same time as the need for carers is increasing.

According to Rebecca Gill, policy officer for women's equality at the TUC, the issue of caring will increasingly affect men:

"Women have always been carers. But demographic changes mean that increasingly there will be an expectation on men to look after their elderly parents, and work-life balance will become an absolute necessity."

Gill believes that this change in the type of worker with caring responsibilities will be the lever for a fundamental change in the way that both employers and unions take up the issue of carers in the workplace.

To retain skilled and experienced workers who are also carers, employers will increasingly need to take action to accommodate their needs so that they can successfully combine and manage their caring roles with their paid work. The economy cannot function without the unpaid care and support that carers provide, which Carers UK estimates to be worth around £57 billion a year.

However, until now a lack of support or flexible employment has meant that many carers are forced out of their paid work. A Carers UK survey found that seven out of 10 carers under 50 - and eight out of 10 of those aged between 50 and 60 - had given up work to care, even though one in three of these wants to return to work.

Rowena Smith, chair of the CDNA community and district nurses' union, told the Labour Research Department:

"The role of becoming a carer is one we would not choose - it often happens without warning and does not allow for us to plan how to fit into our already busy lives. For many it is honouring a promise made to our parents long before the need was there, and the reality is often very different. We must ensure that employers make allowances to enable carers to continue if they wish to have a productive working life."

Now, progress is at last being made on addressing working carers' needs. From 6 April 2007, the majority of carers who are in paid work have gained the right to request flexible working arrangements from their employers, under the provisions of the Work and Families Act 2006.

Deborah Littman of the Bargaining Support Group at public services union UNISON welcomes the new legislation and the opportunities it brings:

"The expansion of rights for carers provides unions with an excellent opportunity to find out more about the daily struggles facing their membership. Stewards will want to draw on that experience to negotiate better workplace agreements for those trying to balance work and caring responsibilities."

While the new right to request flexible working is a definite step forward, there is still far more to do before all working carers get the support they need. More and more carers need workplace agreements and policies to enable them to combine and manage their caring roles with their paid work. As Rebecca Gill says:

"Although some employers and unions are taking this issue extremely seriously, there needs to be a concerted effort to really push this as a key issue over the next 10 years."

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, agrees:

"Our challenge is to advocate this new right and strive for best practice to be adopted. We need to ensure that those who care for others are not forced out of the workplace, and that assistance is given to them to adopt a pattern of work to suit their needs."

This booklet examines why workers with caring responsibilities need specific workplace agreements and policies dedicated to them, and why it makes sense for employers to provide these. It uses case studies to highlight good practice and its beneficial effects on carers, details union initiatives in this area, and sets out the legislation and the procedures involved in exercising the new legal right to request flexible working.