Employers start to ease the pressure on working carers

The stress of caring for elderly relatives is being recognised, but more can be done

When her father developed Parkinson’s disease dementia, Mary Bright did her best to help with his care. As his illness progressed, her weekends settled into a joyless routine: a dash from work on Friday to collect her two children from their after-school club in Bristol in the south-west of England, feed them supper and get them into their pyjamas for the four-hour journey eastward, in heavy traffic, to their grandparents’ home in Essex.

By the time her father died three years ago she felt drained by the worry, the long hours on the motorway and the nights at her father’s bedside so that her mother could sleep. But at no time did the 47-year-old, a senior manager with Aviva, the insurer, tell her employer. “I worried that people might think I wasn’t coping,” she says.

Then last year, her mother was hospitalised after a fall. Ms Bright emailed her boss, explaining the situation and emphasising that everything was under control. His reaction surprised her. “He picked up the phone and said: ‘Go and be a carer. For the moment, that’s what you need to do.’”

Ms Bright is one of a generation of workers caught in a demographic pincer, caring for elderly parents and raising children. Since November, she has helped to develop a programme at Aviva to support working carers and create carers’ networks. The company is one of a growing number of employers engaging in such activities as the population of elderly dependants increases. In the UK about 6.5m adults are carers, which the charity Carers UK predicts will rise to 9m by 2037. In the US, more than 1 in 6 adults have caring responsibilities.

Across Europe, 58 per cent of working-age carers are in paid employment, according to Eurofound, an EU agency, but many find it unsustainable and cease work. That creates a problem for carers, who suffer financially, and for employers, who lose experienced workers.

Agile working can help. Swapping an office desk in Bristol for a home office in South Wales allowed Andrew Parfitt Jones, an IT test manager with Lloyds Banking Group, to keep an eye on his elderly father, who suffered from a heart condition and arthritis and lived on the floor below.

Carers can still encounter problems, even when employers are supportive. Line managers who are new to the role are prone to making policies up “rather than ask questions”, says Hugh Neal, who chairs the carers’ network at the professional services group KPMG.

To spare the awkwardness of repeatedly explaining themselves, carers at a number of businesses, including BT, receive a document called a “carer’s passport”, which describes their circumstances and working arrangements.

However, as Emma Codd, managing partner for talent at Deloitte, observes: “You can have all the policies in the world, but if someone believes that [being labelled a carer] will damage their career, the chances are they will go under the radar.”

This is why Katherine Wilson, head of Employers for Carers, an employers’ membership group backed by Carers UK, encourages bosses to lead by example. “For a really senior figure to say ‘I’m a carer’ would be fantastic,” Ms Wilson says. To any candidates, she says: “Please step forward.”

Hearing senior colleagues talk about caring would give encouragement to other people in the same position, rebutting the stereotype of carers as uncommitted, she says.

“Looking after an elderly person whose condition is worsening is very different emotionally from [raising] a child” and is harder for colleagues to relate to, says Victoria Price, a partner at EY.

Ms Price is open about her situation, juggling flexible work with care for her three children and 96-year-old grandmother, who has dementia. To keep her colleagues informed of her whereabouts, she lists all her commitments in an open electronic calendar: attending sports day (available for calls), meeting over grandma’s care (taking calls after 3pm).

“If you can’t attend a meeting in an emergency everyone understands. But the subtext is that work must be done for when the client expects it,” she explains.

As the pressures on working-age adults mount, some employers have added emergency elderly care services to employee benefits. However, these are the exception. Ben Black, co-founder of My Family Care, a leading UK provider, says his company supplies 20 hours of childcare for every hour of back-up care for the elderly.

From a corporate perspective, Ms Wilson urges employers to include consideration for carers in all aspects of policy, from training to leave policies and provision for flexible working.

In practice, this means that whenever a business talks about working parents, it ought also to talk about carers.

Anna Gavriel, 37, despaired of re-establishing herself in real estate planning after a two-year career break to care for her father, who suffered a stroke. Though she kept up her professional accreditation, recruiters saw her “as semi-retired”.

It was only when she spotted an advertisement last year for the Deloitte Return to Work Programme, a 20-week scheme to help professionals restart their careers, that things looked up. Now a senior planner at Deloitte, she hopes other employers recognise careers don’t always run smoothly — because, as she puts it, “life happens, too”.

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