The chaos of unpaid caring while in employment, part one

With more and more of us taking on carer responsibilities, it’s time for HR to help develop working practices that work for all, says Jo Gallacher

Feeling exhausted after a hard day’s work is not uncommon. It’s been proven that our brains make us feel fatigue to preserve the integrity of brain functioning; it’s our most vital organ literally telling us to take a break.
But imagine on top of the endless to-do lists, overwhelming inbox and meetings that could have been an email, you have another job waiting for you at home: that of the unpaid carer.

Working carers in the UK:

UK workers given day-one flexible working rights

Unpaid carer workforce grows by 4.3 million each year

Government backs new bills for pregnant workers and unpaid carers

A carer is a person of any age who provides unpaid care and support to a family member, friend or neighbour who is disabled, has an illness or long-term condition, or who needs extra help as they grow older.

HR may be shocked to find out just how many workers in their organisation are unpaid carers. Approximately one in seven carers in the UK are juggling these responsibilities with their jobs, according to charity Carers UK. Its research found on average 600 people a day leave work to care and 75% of carers in employment worry about continuing to manage work alongside their caring duties.

With an ageing population, woefully underfunded social care sector and those with disabilities living longer, the likelihood is that the number of workers with caring responsibilities will continue to increase.

These employees are often just about treading water in a sea of uncertainty and exhaustion, so how can HR better support them? Workers can become a carer at any age and often don’t see themselves as such until they’ve been plate-spinning for some time, argues Katherine Wilson, head of employers for carers at Carers UK.

She says: “People don’t choose to be carers and it can often be a very worrying time. Care situations vary enormously and can be a really difficult subject emotionally to talk about at work. This can make it more challenging than childcare, perhaps, as it’s a different sort of emotional subject.

“The milestones for caring are different from general childcare, as very often the person you are caring gets worse rather than better. It goes the opposite of childcare, where the person you are caring for may become more dependent on you over time rather than less. Often it can be very unpredictable as well, emergency situations can occur and conditions can flare up at any time, making life as a carer extremely challenging.”

Women, who are often still the primary caregiver, are disproportionately impacted and are much more likely to become an unpaid carer. Some also become ‘sandwich carers’, meaning they are caring for both young children and elderly family members.

Wilson adds: “In some cases-women taken more of the role with childcare and this establishes a pattern. Then when it comes to elder care, if the woman has had a history of working flexibly, they inevitably become the one to do that. It also makes sense if a woman is earning less than a man; between the two they might decide the woman would take time out to become an unpaid carer and work more flexibly.”

Carers in employment fact sheet

● 75% of carers in employment worry about continuing to juggle work and care (Carers UK, State of Caring 2022).
● On average, 600 people a day leave work to care (Carers UK. Juggling Work and Care).
● One in three NHS staff provide unpaid care (NHS staff survey, 2021).
● Between 2010 and 2020, more than 1.9 million people in paid employment became unpaid carers every year (Petrillo and Bennett, 2022).

Research published for Carers UK found 77% felt tired at work because of the demands of their unpaid caring role, while six out of 10 had given up opportunities at work because of their caring responsibilities.

There is currently no statutory requirement for carers to have any paid time off, but this is likely to change very soon. Thanks to a bill put forward by Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain in June 2022, carers will soon be entitled to one week’s unpaid leave per year, allowing them the flexibility to take time off for appointments, unexpected events or simply a chance to rest.

The Carers Leave Bill will be available to employees from their first day of employment, and staff will not need to provide evidence off how the leave is used or who it will be used for.

Employees taking their carer’s leave entitlement will be subject to the same employment protections associated with other forms of family-related leave, meaning they will be protected from dismissal or any detriment due to taking time off. Leave can be taken flexibly, either in individual days or half days, or up to a block of one week.


Caring for the carers

Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies (IES), balances her job with being an unpaid carer for her mother who has Alzheimer’s. She often tweets her caring experiences, highlighting the difficulties when work and caring demands clash.

She says: “When being a working carer, no two days are the same, and how your day goes is very much dependent on how the person you are caring for is feeling. You can feel like you are wearing too many hats without aplomb, and the emotional, mental and sometimes physical strain this can have can be overwhelming.

“When you notice a deterioration in the person you care for, it is almost like a mini-bereavement each time, and it can feel like you are in a constant grief cycle which is also very energy consuming, and does have obvious implications for how you are coping at work.”

"The milestones for caring are different from general childcare, as very often the person you are caring gets worse rather than better"

Bajorek therefore argues that having a safe organisational culture in which people can disclose they have caring responsibilities is essential if HR is to better support carers.

“It can be really embarrassing for some people to admit what they deal with at home – I was so used to saying that everything was ‘okay’, until my caring responsibilities dramatically increased during lockdown and the emotional impact it has on me began to have an impact on my work.

However, being able to talk about the changes in my mum’s Alzheimer’s and what that means for me has been a huge help.”

Line managers can also play a pivotal role in how supported unpaid carers feel.

Bajorek adds: “At IES we have recently done some line manager training about working carers. I spoke to line managers giving them a personal experience of what it can be like for a working carer and what has helped me, and we also worked through a number of real-life scenarios and what line managers could do to support staff in these situations.

“is gave line managers a glimpse into what working carers can experience, and just how important their support is. We are not expecting line managers to be clinicians, but if a direct report discloses to them, it may be helpful for line managers to look into a specific condition to have some understanding of what they may be dealing with at home, and even how the condition progresses.”

Caring has been shown to have a significant impact on health and wellbeing. On average, 60% of carers report a long-term health condition or disability compared with 50% non-carers (Carers UK analysis of GP Patient Survey 2021) and 41% of carers haven’t taken a break from their caring role in the last year.

Public Health England has also reported increasing evidence that caring should be considered a social determinant of health given the impact it can have.

Carers are also more likely to be in debt, especially in the context of the cost of living crisis. A survey by Carers UK of 12,400 current unpaid carers found that one in six (16%) are now in debt as they try to manage their monthly costs.

Those providing many hours of unpaid care are especially vulnerable to rising costs because their ability to earn an income is limited. Unpaid carers may also be unable to cut back on costs, such as heating and medical equipment, without affecting the safety of the person they care for, putting them at more risk of debt as energy bills soar.

Health and financial wellbeing are therefore vital aspects for HR to keep track of. So how can these employees be better supported to help them stay in work?


This story is part one of a two-part cover feature - read part two here.

The full article of the above first appeared in the March/April 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.