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Unless we live alone with no close ties with friends and family, we are all carers at some point in our lives and the older we get the more likely it is that children become the ‘parents’ to their parents, so employers need to take the issues around carers seriously. We are living much longer and working much longer too, yet we are also living with a far higher chance of complex and multiple medical issues, as our health system keeps us alive with improved treatments and drug therapies. It is now much more common for adults from 40 to 70 to be working full time while also caring for relatives, perhaps a partner, a mother and a father-in-law all at the same time.
As a senior manager responsible for the welfare of a diverse workforce I was used to considering the needs of employees with disabilities, but some of the staff who struggled the most were those caring for someone else’s needs, rather than their own. ‘Making reasonable adjustments’ to the work role of someone with sleep deprivation from looking after a sick parent or going through the emotional turmoil of dealing with a terminally ill partner was much more challenging. As with all aspects of leadership, opening up channels of communication and acknowledging the situation that staff find themselves in, is the best place to start. This needs to be coupled with allowing someone access to a ‘safe place’ where they can offload some of the anxiety and stress they are carrying. These two simple steps are essential to keeping staff with caring responsibilities fully productive at work.
Carers are people too
When I found myself in the role of carer for my husband it reminded me that the role of ‘carer’ is very diverse and requires a wide-ranging and flexible approach from the employer. Looking after someone with an acute condition such as cancer can range from completing more of the mundane domestic tasks on your own to devoting your every hour to someone else’s every need. And these needs will change as the person’s illness or disability progresses, so just when you think you have everyone under control, it changes. Fortunately I ran my own company so I was able to schedule my work around my caring responsibilities but as an employer I was acutely aware that when a member of staff was going through such a situation, they needed a whole host of support mechanisms that varied as much as we do as individuals.
Tackling the ‘Elephant in the Room’
Caring for someone with a life-threatening or terminal illness can be a very lonely business. We struggle to know what to say to someone who is dealing with this as we fear the outpouring of emotion we may encounter if we broach the subject in the workplace. But not saying anything means you are ignoring what someone is going through and potentially isolating them and making the situation even more unbearable. The HR responsibilities of my previous senior roles meant that it was my job to deal with this when others couldn't, but also to help them cope better with the difficult conversations they needed to have with any carers in their teams.
Supporting employees that are also carers
Every situation will differ but my advice would be to consider these five simple points:
- Equip your staff to deal with a colleague with caring responsibilities. Ensure that managers are supported and trained to carry out their duty of care and why their behaviour could lead to an accusation of ‘discrimination by association’ if they don’t.
- Utilise best practice in coaching & counselling by creating a physical and psychological space where employees can come and talk about the load they are carrying, receive some reassurance and then go about their job. Often there is not much we as employers could do to lessen the burden but just knowing you'd been listened to is very powerful for those who were surrounded by other staff who ‘don't know what to say’.
- Help carers to identify the triggers and pinch points in the working day. Ask carers what makes them feel better and what makes them feel worse. Even that simple question can reassure them that you are trying to find ways of helping them in their work. It may be that some temporary changes to their hours or the opportunity to work from home ensures that they stay in work and don’t call in sick on the days when they can’t cope.
- Advise carers on what support they are entitled to under the Health & Social Care Act. Under law, carer’s needs are supposed to be considered in any assessment of an ill or disabled person’s health and most GP’s keep a register of someone who is a carer so they can offer enhanced support. Just knowing a few good websites and the telephone numbers of local carer’s support organisations could make a huge difference with regard to the support carers are getting outside of work. There are also a range of financial benefits that carers and those cared for are entitled to and not always aware of.
- Reassure carers that what they are feeling is a normal reaction. Caring for someone, whatever your feelings for them is a challenging and unpredictable situation that brings up some emotions you may not be prepared for. It is not unusual for people to feel angry, resentful, guilty or abandoned. You can also help carers understand why their usually supportive colleagues are struggling to do what you are doing by listening to them and allowing them to express these normal emotional reactions.
Caring as Loss
The way that each of us deal with giving up our own needs to look after someone else’s is very different, but the common feature is that we all experience some sense of loss. Loss is an emotion that follows a set pattern so as employers we can prepare ourselves to help people who experience it. The classic emotions of shock, anger, depression, withdrawal and acceptance manifest themselves in different ways and at different rates. They also manifest themselves in a range of behaviours which differ in men and women, introverts and extroverts and can be affected by different childhood and cultural experiences. We don't need to know all of the research around this but we do need to accept that someone’s behaviour may be quite different when they are experiencing loss. This may be the loss of someone they care for, soon or at some point in the future, but it can also be the loss of their own freedom and control over their lives. In the case of someone dealing with a seriously ill partner, it can be grieving over the loss of a close relationship or just someone to talk to about how work has gone that day. It's often the simple things that affect people most.
It worries me that in this age of mass outpouring of grief over a celebrity who has died or a disaster affecting people we never knew or are likely to meet, we still don't know how to talk to someone who is experiencing or has experienced loss. It's perhaps that bit of our emotional literacy that is likely to remain ignored for the time being.
Carers Week is an annual campaign that raises awareness of caring and carers in the UK. This year we have updated our Carers package to include Families and a wider range of resources for everyone with care responsibilities.
Julia Pollock is a graduate psychologist with over 20 years of experience as a manager in Further Education, much of it in roles leading on quality improvement, leadership development and staff welfare. She set up her own company Creative Leadership & Development Ltd in 2012 and has trained and mentored staff and managers in colleges and training organisations throughout the UK, specialising in leadership behaviours, performance management and mental health awareness. She qualified as a coach in 2010 and gained a Post-graduate Diploma in Coaching Psychology in 2014. In her spare time she volunteers for an NHS Trust that provides mental health services in the north of England and runs a Community Group that engages people in folk music, song and dance. She lost her husband to cancer earlier this year and is currently researching for a book on how people respond to bereavement.