Do we care enough about carers?

Employers should consider support for employees who are also carers if they don't want to lose talented staff

Carers UK released figures in December showing that every day 6,000 people become a carer – either for elderly relatives or following an accident or sudden health incident. Although the government plans to introduce extra funding for social care, it is important that employers know how to deal with this situation and prepare line managers to help and understand the issues faced by employees with caring responsibilities.

In the UK all full-time workers can take 5.6 weeks' statutory leave per year. Most will use this for holidays. However, is this enough for employees who care for family members? Probably not, leading to many asking their employers for more time off.

Employers should consider how they might accommodate people who are carers, especially if they don't want to lose talented and experienced staff.

There is a statutory right for employees to take a 'reasonable' amount of time off to care for dependants. It's expected that this is used in emergencies only, such as where a dependant falls ill at short notice. A dependant could be a spouse, partner, child, parent, or anyone who depends on an employee for care. There is no legal right to be paid during this time off. However, some employers may have terms and conditions of employment that set out the right to pay in these circumstances.

While this right is useful, it does not include provisions for dependants who require long-term care. While there is no strict definition of 'reasonable' time off one to two days would be considered the norm.

What can employers do?

Employers should do their best to follow guidance from Acas, such as the Flexible working and work-life balance and Time off for dependants guides.

Employers should be mindful of associative discrimination claims from employees as The Equality Act 2010 also protects employees against discrimination and/or harassment based on someone else's protected characteristic. Examples might include insulting comments made to a worker about their disabled child or failing to promote a member of staff because they are the primary carer for a dependent adult.

Employers may want to have an appropriate policy, or a section in the employee handbook, explaining how they will support employees who become carers. Such support could include:

  1. Recognising who within the business is a carer. Employees may not want to tell employers about their home lives but this gives both sides a chance to discuss the full extent of someone's obligations, and might explain a change in behaviour at work.
  2. Consider requests for flexible working. Individuals may ask employers to change their working arrangements if they need to care for a dependant. For example, an employee may ask for part time or flexible working so they can care for a sick or elderly parent. Employers are under an obligation to consider the requests in a reasonable manner and should only refuse if there is a business case for doing so.
  3. Discuss what is needed. Employers should discuss what effect being a carer will have on the worker's role. For example, the individual might request an extended lunch or a later start time to be able to deal with a dependant, or simply want to be able to access a phone at work. If the employer knows this it can discuss how practical this would be in the employee's current role.

With many employees likely to become carers at some point, it is crucial employers try to address the balance between the professional obligations of the business and the personal commitments of their employees.

Helena Rozman is associate in the employment team at Dentons