Creating a workplace that caters for carers’ needs

People often don’t tell their employer that they are an unpaid carer for a friend or a relative. They worry that rather than supporting them, their employer will see them as less able to do their job, or more likely to be absent. But there are 4.27 million carers of working age living in the UK – 2.44 million (57%) of these are women and 1.83 million (43%) are men. And one in five carers gives up employment to care.

Gill Chivers, Head of HR at the UK’s largest carers charity, Carers Trust, explains how they set about creating a workplace where employees with caring responsibilities could start to feel fully supported and able to be open and honest about their needs.

Carers Trust was formed in April 2012 from a merger of The Princess Royal Trust for Carers with Crossroads Care. As both of these were charities that supported unpaid carers you’d expect that they would have a big head start in creating a workplace sympathetic to the needs of unpaid carers, who are such a big part of society.

That was true as both charities had two sets of employees who understood what caring is about and the kinds of challenges carers face every day.  But they also had all the people issues that typically come out of a merger – different cultures, ways of working, employment policies and terms and conditions.

With a need to restructure some areas, and the resulting anxiety about job security, people were unsure about the future.  So it perhaps isn’t surprising that an early anonymous survey showed that people were reluctant to reveal their caring responsibilities in case it disadvantaged them.

Of course that is very common, but people shouldn’t feel like that in the UK’s largest carers charity, Carers Trust!  It was clear the new charity needed to take action to put things right.

The starting point was to show commitment from the top of the organisation.  The new Chief Executive, Thea Stein, agreed a set of objectives with the board – and significantly one of these objectives was to ‘to ensure Carers Trust is an exemplary place to work for carers’.  She shared her objectives with the whole staff team which was an important signal to everyone that this was a really important issue.

This aim was, and still is, woven throughout the HR team’s programme of work and solid progress has been made to create that carer-friendly working culture.

Establishing a Staff Carers Group

From the outset the charity made space and opportunity for a Staff Carers Group so that carers could contribute to the development of the employer’s approach, and let the carers in the organisation offer informal support to one another. The group was initiated by one of the senior members of staff who is a carer herself (not by HR) and the content and arrangements are all down to the group.

Meetings tend to be virtual so it isn’t costly and it isn’t time consuming.  Dates are announced in advance and anyone who considers themselves to be a carer can join in – they don’t have to say who they are if they don’t want to. The group is fluid – there are a core of regulars, but other people dip in and out. Overall the numbers taking part have grown month to month.

The focus of the group has been around influencing Carers Trust’s policy and activity, with some informal peer support that has developed alongside the group calls. Interestingly, feedback seems to suggest that simply having the group available is in some ways more important to the carers we employ than always being a part of it.  A spin off from the group has been a carers blog, which is a great addition to our external communications

Carers in Employment Policy

Both of the founder charities had employment policies in place saying how employee carers would be supported. However Carers Trust needed to say what it was going to do. What could the carers in the organisation expect to help them combine work and caring?

The old policies were combined and a draft document produced which the Staff Carers Group looked at. HR made some changes in line with their suggestions and then invited every employee to comment before the policy was finalised. The policy is clear that there is no obligation for anyone to reveal their caring situation – but that it may help them to get the support they need if they do.

The finished policy covers things that almost any employer could commit to – some small but important things: people being allowed to keep their personal mobiles switched on during meetings in case they are needed at home; having their care commitments taken into account when setting meeting times; and ensuring people have opportunities to talk to their line manager about their caring responsibilities and how Carers Trust can support them.

There are also bigger commitments including up to five days paid carer leave in a 12 month period and a commitment to give serious consideration to requests to change working patterns, hours or place of work on a short or long term basis to accommodate changes in caring responsibilities.

Making it okay to talk about caring

The commitment that carers will have regular opportunities to talk to their line manager about their caring situation sounds easy.  But in practice, trying to open up that first conversation can be really uncomfortable for the carer and for the line manager. To address this, the question is now a standing item on the standard agenda for ‘one to one’ review meetings – just like progress with work plans and reviewing overall workload. That way it’s easier for the line manager simply to ask if the employee would like to talk about any caring responsibilities and the can choose to say yes or no.

Experience has shown that once the first awkwardness of the subject is out of the way it becomes a natural thing to talk about – meaning that line managers are better informed about things that might affecting their teams and that team members know they can talk when they need support.

Other policies

As other employment policies have been developed, the Staff Carers Group have also specifically been invited to comment on them. This is because those people that aren’t carers don’t always see the small things that would make a difference to those that are.  A simple example is in the wording of the policy on stress management.  Obviously, the focus of the policy is the avoidance and management of work related stress, but the Staff Carers Group helped the policy writers to recognise the interplay between stress at work and at home for working carers. As a result the policy now contains a short section about stress and caring that directs people back to the carers in employment policy.

Taking this approach means not just giving carers one policy that is theirs and then forgetting about them, but making the whole suite of employment policies carer friendly.

Working from home and generally working flexibly

About 40% of Carers Trust employees are based at home, because that suits the needs of the business. Lots of others work from home from time to time because it suits them and they can be accommodated.  The charity has a flexible approach to working hours – so people can flex their start and finish times to help them meet any personal commitments.  Both of these approaches can be very beneficial to working carers, although it’s not exclusively carers who benefit.

What difference has all this made?

Given the number of unpaid carers in the workforce, and especially those who have to give up work to care for their loved ones, employers are missing out on a massive pool of skills and experience if they don’t make it possible for carers to work in organisations of all types.

Carers Trust is not just interested in making the organisation a great place to work for carers because it is an organisation that works with and for carers.  It makes good business sense too.

So the HR team were delighted to get feedback from the Staff Carers Group saying how much they appreciated the approach, and the level of consultation about the policies and practice.

Several members of the group had had particularly positive experiences and wanted to share these with the rest of the staff to encourage carers and line managers to open up the lines of communication if they’ve not already done so. They offered examples of their own experience and asked for them to be included in the guidance about one to one review meetings.

More than anything else, that says that Carers Trust has made some huge strides in the right direction, even if there is plenty more that can and will be done.

Carers Trust wants to lead the way, to show how vital carers are, not just in their caring roles which save the country so much, but also in the skills and experience they can bring to the workforce. And it really doesn’t take much to make the workplace a better place for carers.