Families have always provided unpaid care. Just in my immediate family, my aunt cared for her mum after she became blind, my great grandmother moved in with her daughter to help care for two sets of twins under two, my parents both looked after their parents and aunts as they aged, through illness and dementia, my grandparents cared for my dad when he contracted polio as a child, and now I help him manage his disability from post-polio syndrome. And all families have similar stories: our families and communities fundamentally rely on the work of unpaid carers.
But unlike in days gone by, carers today are often also juggling paid employment. The most recent survey carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that 63% of all carers over 15 (and 42% of primary carers) are employed or looking for work. With the ageing of our population, it is likely that this will affect the majority of us at some stage in our working lives.
And when you consider that being a primary carer in particular (that is someone who provides the majority of care for a person with disability with their mobility, self-care and/or communication) is pretty much already the equivalent of a full time job, you are looking at a very stretched group of people. Around 40% of primary carers provide 40 hours a week or more of care and 27% of those caring for greater than 40 hours or more per week are also in paid work, as are 58% of primary carers who provide more than 20 hours of care per week.
Caring often creates a financial burden on both the carer and their household with many carers struggling to maintain employment. Only 27% of male primary carers work full time, plus another 11% part time, while only 15% of female primary carers are employed full time with another 24% working part time.
Flexible work is critical
For many different groups in the workplace, flexibility is critical to gaining and sustaining paid work. Parents, volunteers, people facing a period of illness or disability, carers, professional sports people, those transitioning to retirement and more can all benefit from flexible working. As can the organisations that employ them.
But caring often has some particular characteristics that can require a more nuanced response from employers. For example, caring responsibilities are often unpredictable (as in the case of managing medical appointments for an ageing parent) and care requirements often change over time (for example when caring for someone with a terminal illness). For carers who need to take time out of the workforce for an intense period of caring, if the caring stops or the level of need decreases, it can often be very difficult to re-enter. Employed carers’ needs can also differ depending on the particular requirements of the person they care for, the level of support they have from family and friends, and whether they have access to carer support or respite services.
What employers can do
Fortunately, there are plenty of things that employers can do to assist people with caring responsibilities, and one of the most important is to facilitate flexible work and careers, across all levels of an organisation. While many people these days have access to basic flexible working – usually part time hours - there is still a long way to go in mainstreaming flexible work in most organisations. And until flexible work is supported as a legitimate choice, people with care responsibilities and other needs for flexibility will continue to experience significant pay gaps, career cul-de-sacs, underemployment and lower performance at work. For many, the alternative is severely reducing paid work hours or quitting paid work altogether which puts carers at risk of poor mental health and poverty in later life.
Other important areas of support for carers include providing: information and support (for example through offering toolkits for carers and managers, links to carer support services, carer networks and awareness raising and training), services (such as access to EAPs, referral services, partnerships with community groups, transport and parking assistance, child and adult care services), and financial assistance (such as through subsidies, allowances, vouchers, or discounts for care or interest free loans).
Create a carers strategy
Developing a carers strategy can also help embed an integrated approach that ensures positive outcomes for both your organisation and carers. To get started on developing a strategy, employers should:
- Survey staff to assess what carers would value – anonymous surveys can help
- Identify the business case for supporting staff with caring responsibilities.
- Audit your current flexibility and carer policies with the involvement of carers in your workplace
- Identify any gaps and then redesigning your current offerings
- Communicate your policies/strategy to staff to continue to actively engage carers. Remember that caring often changes over time, so the carers in your organisation next year might be a completely different group from those who are carers today.
Finally, ensure that you don’t set and forget - monitoring and evaluating your strategy will help keep your organisation competitive.
Jo Tilly is DCA's Research and Policy Manager
Jo is the Manager of Research and Policy at Diversity Council Australia. DCA works with employers across the full range of workplace diversity issues and is a strong supporter of the role business can play in supporting carers to participate and stay attached to paid work.
Prior to joining DCA, Jo worked in social policy in the government and community sectors: for the NSW Government advising on women’s and health issues, for the Australian Human Rights Commission working on sex and age discrimination and for the NSW Public Service Association as the women’s industrial officer.
In her spare time she teaches ethics to school kids, is a health advocate for NSW mums and babies, cares for her father who has a physical disability, studies for a masters degree, and wrangles three children.