Are the growing number of adult carers being unfairly penalised in the workplace?

When we think of 'family friendly' policies, we tend to think of policies for parents of younger children. Shared parental leave, for example. Emergency leave to cover when kids are ill. Or working flexibly to cover school pick-ups.

More and more companies are realising that if they want to keep talented employees who also happen to be parents, they need to say yes to their flexible working requests, and think of ways to make life easier for them.

Aviva, for example, has just announced that it will offer equal amounts of paid and unpaid parental leave to employees, "regardless of gender, sexual orientation or how they became a parent - birth, adoption or surrogacy". And that’s a good thing.

But when you need time off to care for an adult, employers tend to be less sympathetic.

Christmas is cancelled

A user on parenting website Mumsnet recently shared her experience of having her booked Christmas leave cancelled, to allow a colleague who is a parent to spend Christmas Day with her children.

The poster pointed out that she had been planning to spend the festive period with her friends and family - and that not having children doesn’t mean you don’t have a family. Her post attracted more than 600 replies, many from people in the same situation. They felt discriminated against by their employers, because their responsibilities outside work didn’t fit neatly into the new-parent box.

It’s now becoming more acceptable for both mothers and fathers to take time off work to care for children. The take-up of shared parental leave, introduced in 2015, is still low, but attitudes are slowly changing. It’s high time that we saw the same culture change when it comes to those who don’t have children but also have caring responsibilities.

Read: Are we about to see a spike in family businesses?

An issue for everyone

After all, this issue affects a lot of people. According to Carers UK, one in five people aged 50 to 64 are carers. Women do more caring than men: one in four carers are women, and one in six are men. Women are also more likely to be 'sandwich carers' - looking after both elderly relatives and their children. And they’re also the group that’s most likely to give up work when caring responsibilities and work life become impossible to balance.

And there are likely to be many more of them in the future. Carers UK estimates that by 2037, the country will need an extra 2.6 million carers. That’s a 40 per cent rise. Without this informal army of family and friends looking after mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents, the NHS would collapse - they provide care worth an incredible £119bn per year.

Before the UK general election in May 2017, the Conservatives proposed the introduction of a year’s unpaid leave to enable workers to take time off to care. But little has been said about it since. In our ageing society, it’s clear that employers will need to take the lead and work out how best to help those with ageing family members.

Practical help

In practice, this might mean looking more favourably on requests for flexible working from carers. This benefits both the company and the carer: research from Carers UK and the University of Leeds suggests that offering carers flexible working can boost productivity, company image and morale.

Employees could signpost carers to support services, and help raise awareness of their difficulties. Caring is a stressful business, and around 625,000 people every year have problems with their mental and physical health as a result.

Many carers feel isolated and unable to discuss their issues with their line managers. Just as they did with parental responsibilities, companies need to make caring more visible, and help carers feel valued and engaged. It needs to be just as acceptable to leave early to pick up Mum from her sheltered housing, or come in a bit late because you’ve accompanied Dad to a medical appointment.

So let’s make sure that in the future, when we say 'family friendly', we mean the whole family - and not just at Christmas, but all year round.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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