Of the six million people in the UK who care for an older or disabled relative, partner or friend, around 80% are of working age. Yet only about half manage to combine work with their caring responsibilities, and many of these end up working far fewer hours or in less prominent roles than they would like.
This is not because being a carer is inherently incompatible with having a career. Nor is it because there is not enough time in the day to do both. Often it is simply because the combination of working and being a carer demands a flexibility that many employers have hitherto been unwilling to provide.
But all this is about to change.
Under provisions of the Work and Families Act 2006 enacted on April 6 this year, carers have been extended the same rights to flexible working that parents of young children have enjoyed since 2003 (see Your rights in practice).
The new rights, which have been described by Carers UK chief executive, Imelda Redmond, as “a step forward for everyone in promoting a modern, flexible and multi-skilled workforce”, will be granted to 2.6 million working carers in the UK. The government estimates that half of all carers who work non-flexibly will, at some stage, make a request for flexible working. There may also be carers who currently do not work who may be tempted back into the workplace by the promise of greater flexibility.
For those who work in social care, the significance of the Work and Families Act is two-fold. First, there is the obvious benefit to the person being cared for, who may also be a social services client. Allowing carers greater flexibility in their work should lead to knock-on benefits in terms of their financial circumstances and the quality of the care they are able to provide.
Second, there is evidence that the social care workforce will be among the primary beneficiaries of the new rights. Local authorities, and in particular social services departments, employ a disproportionately high number of carers.
Nationally, around 12% of the workforce are carers. But Hertfordshire Council estimates that 18.4% of its workforce are carers, while a recent survey of Devon Council’s social services department found that one in five had caring responsibilities. If those with existing rights to request flexible working (parents of children under six or disabled children under 18) are added to the equation, it is likely that around one third of the social care workforce may now qualify to ask their employer for more flexible terms.
Although employers retain the right to refuse a request for flexible working if they can provide a good reason for doing so, to do so may be ill-advised. Flexible working has, for example, already been shown to improve recruitment and retention of staff, reduce sick pay and time lost due to absences, and improve productivity.
This is certainly the experience of Hertfordshire Council, which launched its Carewise strategy of flexible working for carers in 2002. Under the scheme, employees who are carers can request flexitime, term-time working, decreased hours, job-sharing, or compressed hours, where a full week’s work might be compressed into four longer days.
“We also provide location flexibility so employees can work from home for part of the week, career breaks, and five days’ paid emergency leave so that carers can deal with unexpected events,” says Anna Landers, a Hertfordshire human resources officer.
One of the key principles of the initiative is that it places the onus on carers’ line managers to accept requests for flexible working unless there are specific operational reasons for not doing so. As a result over 90% of flexible working requests are granted.
“We also have an annual carers’ conference, which gets about 50 to 60 people attending,” says Landers. “This gives us an opportunity to get some feedback on how the policy is going down and how it could be improved. The general message that comes back is that we are doing the right thing.”
The council’s figures on recruitment and retention certainly suggest that Carewise has begun to pay dividends. Before the policy was introduced, staff turnover was running at 18%, with some teams working with a 50% vacancy rate.
The most recent figures show that turnover has now reduced to 13.3%. Absence due to sickness is around two days lower than the national average for local government. Staff surveys have shown that over 70% of staff feel their manager is sensitive to work/life balance issues. Crucially, figures show that the initiative has been introduced at no overall cost to the local authority.
All of this should make reassuring reading for other local authorities who will now be expected by law to introduce more flexible employment practices for carers among their staff.
A previously unpublished survey, carried out earlier this year by Carers UK, suggests that most local authorities are already well placed to adopt the regulations. The survey of 52 carers’ leads at local authorities in England, reveals that half already have corporate policies that include support for carers and nearly two-thirds are planning further work on this issue with their human resources department.
Most of the carers’ leads surveyed said they felt the new rights would benefit social care, both through improved recruitment, retention and productivity of staff within social care organisations and through the better delivery of services.
Some of the local authorities were embarking on joint work with local employers, using their experience of supporting staff to help employers locally reap the benefits of flexible working. Others were setting up carers’ forums within the workplace.
“It’s not often that you get a win/win situation like this,” says Emily Holzhausen, head of policy at Carers UK. “But this legislation really should have positive knock-on effects, not just for staff, but also for carers in receipt of services.”
Holzhausen is particularly encouraged that many local authorities appear to be actively informing carers about their rights in the workplace. The survey shows that more than a third refer working carers to local voluntary organisations, the internet or the Department for Work and Pensions for information and advice about non-social care aspects of caring. Around one in six have leaflets planned to tell workers about their rights.
“I think we are seeing a bit of a culture shift around caring,” says Holzhausen. “The message is finally getting across that it’s not just the social care aspects that are important, but other needs – like being able to work.”
Sheila Daly, carer, Hertfordshire
Without the flexible hours offered by Hertfordshire Council, Sheila Daly would have had to choose between caring for her husband, who uses a wheelchair due to severe osteoarthritis, and keeping her job as an administrator in adult social care. As it is, she is able to do both.
“As long as I do the hours, then it doesn’t matter when I’m in the office,” she says. “So if we have an appointment at the hospital and it’s running late or gets cancelled, which happens a lot, then I don’t have to worry about rushing back to the office. Nor do I have to grovel to get the time off in the first place.”
Indeed Daly’s employers can sometimes seem more accommodating than her husband’s. “They moan about having to get cover for him, whereas I can just make up the time later in the week,” Sheila explains.
The Dalys have been assessed as “needing services” and use direct payments to pay for help with housework. Sheila helps her husband with daily activities such as washing and dressing, but he is still able to go to work every day. Working flexible hours means that Sheila is able to care for his needs and continue her career.
“If I didn’t have that flexibility then I think I probably would have to give up my job, which would be a bit silly because it’s not that I need a lot of time off, it’s just that you can’t predict everything that’s going to happen.”
Flexible working has also proved a strong incentive to remain working at Hertfordshire Council, says Daly. “I enjoy my job here, but there are other jobs I could have gone for but haven’t because they would have wanted me to work nine to five.”
YOUR RIGHTS IN PRACTICE
What does the law say?
Parents of children under six and of disabled children under 18 have had the right to ask their employer to be able to work flexibly (and for their employer to consider such requests seriously) since April 2003. Since April 2007, under provisions of the Work and Families Act 2006, the same rights have now been extended to carers.
What is flexible working?
Flexible working can mean anything that makes it easier for you to carry out your caring responsibilities. This could mean flexitime, shorter hours, working four longer days a week instead of five, job-sharing, home-working or tele-working, time off for emergencies or career breaks.
Who can apply?
A carer is defined as someone who is caring for an adult who:
● Is married to, or the partner or civil partner of, the employee;
● Is a near relative of the employee (parent, parent-in-law, adult child, adopted adult child, sibling, uncle, aunt, grandparent or step-relative);
● Or falls into neither category but lives at the same address as the employee.
Carers who care for friends or neighbours are currently not eligible.
How do I apply?
You must apply to your employer in writing explaining your caring responsibilities and the change you would like to make in your working arrangements.
You should also consider the effect this might have on your employer’s business and how this might be accommodated. You may make only one application a year.
The changes to your terms and conditions will be permanent (unless otherwise agreed at the time), so you should consider what you are asking for carefully, especially if it will involve a drop in salary.
What happens next?
Your employer must arrange a meeting within 28 days of receiving your request. This will allow you to thrash out the proposed changes to your
work pattern and to allow your employer to make alternative suggestions. Within 14 days of this meeting you should receive a decision either
agreeing to your new work pattern or giving clear reasons why it has been denied.
Can I appeal?
Yes. If your request is denied you have 14 days to lodge an appeal. Under specific circumstances you may be able to take your case to an employment tribunal.
Carers UK has produced a free guide to carers’ new rights. The Employees Guide to Work and Caring from 0845 241 0963 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 17 May issue under the headline “Helping carers back to work”