Providing unpaid care for disabled, sick or elderly relatives and loved ones is often a physically and emotionally challenging task for the individual. Informal carers not only reduce the burden on the social care system and therefore the economy, but they often do so with very little support (financial or otherwise) for themselves. This group are also often excluded from the job market, with over a million UK residents providing 50 or more hours of care a week, more than full-time working hours. For those who have fewer hours of caring responsibilities, a lack of flexibility in the workplace may also make continuing work impossible. A survey by Carers UK (in 2011) found 44% of carers reporting that they had been pushed into debt as a result of the extra costs of caring or of giving up work or reducing working hours to provide care.
This is not a small problem – the 2011 Census identified that 10 per cent (5.8 million) of UK residents had a caring role, with over a third (37 per cent, 2.1 million) giving 20 or more hours care a week. It is estimated that £5 billion is lost to the economy through people dropping out the workforce to care for others. And the cohort of carers is likely to grow given the impact of the ageing population in the UK, and predicted growth in people with co-morbid chronic conditions. Gaps in employment will also impact on individual’s pension provisions and savings. Unsurprisingly, the biggest losers in term of the labour market are women, with more carers of working age being women then men, peaking in caring responsibility in the 45-59 age group.
This is a challenge that both employers and policymakers have to take seriously if they do not wish to continue to lose a significant proportion of the workforce. Efforts need to be made to make sure that people with caring responsibilities are supported to remain in their jobs by employers offering flexibility where it’s needed and where they are able – i.e. in terms of flexible hours and permitting emergency leave (annual leave at short notice) when emergencies arise. Jobs need to be designed in ways that consider this likely future. Managers need to encourage employee to tell them of such issues and their needs so they can be worked through together.
For those who have little choice but to leave the labour market, due to their employer or the extent of their caring responsibilities, it’s important to make sure that those who want to return, are able to. The Carers UK survey found that 56% of respondents who gave up work to care had spent over 5 years out of work as a result. In times of economic instability, re-entering the workforce after an extended absence can be very difficult – and support and guidance will be needed. A number of local programs exist in the UK which focus on supporting carers to stay in, though more often to get back to, work including finding the right jobs that offer the flexibility needed. These need to be evaluated and best practice information shared nationally to ensure that more people are helped by programs that work.
In the meantime, guidance needs to be available to provide carers with information on how to get back into the labour market. For example, showing carers how they can positively account for their time out of formal work to employers – looking at what has been achieved rather than what hasn’t and identifying transferable skills and relevant responsibilities. Opportunities for training to upskill, particularly in respect to new technologies, need to be available and accessible. Perhaps the biggest barrier to getting back into work after a long absence is confidence – but with the right supports in place, and a more positive attitude among employers about employing people with gaps in their work history through taking the time out to care for a loved one, these obstacles can be avoided.