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Caring for a disabled child while working: how HR can help

How many of the employees in your workforce are carers of a disabled child? No judgement if you are unaware - statistics and standard carer categories don’t often differentiate between unpaid carers of adults and those who care for children. However the differences in experience of these two groups are quite marked. 

According to the government’s Informal Carers 2020 briefing paper, there were approximately 1.4 million unpaid carers in the UK (pre-COVID), and research by Forward Carers states that 13% of those are caring for one of the 1.1 million disabled children in the UK. 

Unlike those who care for adults, the vast majority of parent carers are unable to work due to their commitments, however for those that are employed the workplace can be harder to navigate. 

The pandemic has brought many challenges to organisations and their employees: working from home, health worries and home-schooling remain part of the emotional and practical toll that engulfed many of us over the past 12 months.

For carers, this period became more intense. Not only were they expected to continue with the usual caring activities, but they also had to increase this activity in many cases, stepping into the breach as services from the NHS and community support closed during lockdown.

For parent carers this meant that their childcare in most cases was unavailable. Hospital appointments were cancelled, postponed or moved online, specialist learning support was unavailable and for some of these individuals the furlough scheme became a lifeline. 

I am a single parent carer to my 10-year-old daughter who has an incredibly rare genetic condition. As a HR professional, there was definitely no opportunity for furlough, and I found myself home-schooling my child who is registered partially sighted, cognitively delayed, and with poor mobility - with absolutely no warning. Meanwhile, I was managing restructure and redundancy programmes working from home.

I have three other children and know that at her age without disabilities children are likely to have a level of independence that would enable them to access the learning sent home from school on some level. However, for most disabled children who attend a special needs school - as my daughter does - they need almost 100% assistance to enable them to learn.  

The impact this had had on parent carers has been immense. The Guardian’s report Brink of Collapse shows a number of issues that were experienced by parent carers during lockdown, including increased mental health needs. Some families have been in complete isolation since March 2020. 

Similarly, Joanna Griffins’ research for British Psychological society, Supporting Parent Carers, found a plethora of emotional impacts for parents of disabled children including guilt, sorrow and hopelessness. She also found that the emotional process was comparable to grieving. 

The guilt parent carers feel is compounded where either parent has a job. There can be guilt for wanting to fulfil their career goals that may mean they rely more often on respite care; guilt for taking days off work for hospital appointments or their child’s sick days, the push and pull of commitments may seem endless.

So what can employers do to support parent carers?

Family and childcare charity Corams found 73% of the UK public think that employers should do more for carers at work. It said that for those combining working and caring having a sympathetic and flexible manager often has the biggest effect.

Here are five things organisations can take into account when considering this often-hidden group within the workplace.

  1. Get the stats - find out how many of the employees in your organisation are parent carers.
  2. Ensure policies and processes don’t adversely impact parent carers.
  3. Be flexible while balancing business need.
  4. Bespoke career planning – Balance business needs while giving parent carers adequate support to achieve their career goals without a severe impact on the responsibilities they have for their child/children, helping to alleviate the torn anxiety many of them face.
  5. Additional support – You can also consider paid carers leave, carer support groups, looking at the scope of flexible benefits and incentives to include aspects carers would find useful. Frequent promotion of Employee Assistance Programmes and counselling resources can all make the workplace more supportive for parent carers too.


 Dawn Morton-Young is director and senior HR consultant at MLHR.