The chaos of unpaid caring while in employment, part two

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

Before reading the below, catch up on part one of this story here.

Making business sense

Some organisations have gone beyond the Carer's Leave Bill by offering paid leave for unpaid carers. Insurance firm Phoenix Group is one of them, alongside other names such as Virgin Media O2, TSB and HSBC UK.

Sara Thompson, HR director at Phoenix Group, says caring is often an unspoken issue in the workplace which deserves more focus.

She says: “Many, or in fact all of us, will have a caring commitment at some point in our lives, and we didn’t want our colleagues to leave Phoenix Group because of that. In 2020 we increased paid carers leave from five to 10 days, on top of emergency unpaid leave.

“We’ve got an extremely active network in this space, which is chaired by members of our executive team, so our aim is to make sure those people are recognised and supported in the workplace. It’s a topic that’s definitely gathering strength, and I really believe it’s something employers should be talking about.”

"If you can keep people feeling supported through their time of need, you get that back multiple times over"

In 2009, Carers UK set up an employers’ membership forum, Employers for Carers (EfC), which now has over 250 member organisations representing around 4 million employees across the public, private and not for profit sectors.

Member services offer a range of practical resources including e-learning, toolkits, model policies and case studies, access to expert training and consultancy and employer networking events. It also runs a UK-wide employer benchmarking scheme, Carer Confident, which helps HR build a supportive and inclusive workplace for staff who are or will become carers.

Practical tools include different types of carer support, diversity and inclusion and wellbeing training emails to staff (58%), and workshop sessions for managers.

IES’ Bajorek also encourages HR to signpost other help and support options. She adds: “Be that EAPs [employee assistance programmes], patient charities and other support services. The employee has a role here as well; I’ve been blown away by how much help is out there provided by patient charities, and it is the carers responsibility to look into this too.”

Lessons from a carer: Emily Churm

Emily Churm is co-chair of the Phoenix Group colleague Carers Network, which provides support to colleagues who have caring responsibilities. She is a team leader at ReAssure, part of Phoenix Group, and is based in Telford.

Churm, who is in her 20s, looks after her elderly grandmother with her shopping and housework once a week, as well as attending hospital appointments with her.

She was a carer before working at Phoenix and it is always something she has been passionate about. She thinks it’s important for everyone to remember that you can be a carer at different points in your life without even realising it and that it is great to have the right support in place from her employer.

Phoenix Group’s carers policy helps her balance her work and home life seamlessly. She has previously worked for other organisations where this hasn’t always felt possible and she’s had to use annual leave to accommodate important caring commitments. With the policy she doesn’t have to choose between working and caring for her loved ones.

The Carers Network has helped her build a network of colleagues who understand her caring role she has, and offers a much-needed olive branch when times feel tough.

Through her role she enjoys working to raise awareness, provide support to colleagues with caring responsibilities through events, networking, training and peer-to-peer support making carers visible in the Phoenix workplace.

Thompson is keen to encourage her HR peers to join Phoenix Group in offering a much wider support net for the one in seven workers juggling care and employment.

She adds: “It’s a real focus area for us, and we’re keen to look at what we can do to innovate in this space. Carers are more likely to suffer with their mental health, have financial problems, and with women much more likely to become carers it’s an intersectionality issue too.

“We’re looking at what we can do to better support them and what information they might need. It’s not always financial support, but looking at how we change our EAP to better assist, asking employees what would help them the most and leaning on learnings from our carer’s network.”

The policy has been a huge draw for the organisation, with positive feedback from not just unpaid carers but other employees within the business who like knowing a safety net is there should they need it in the future.

Thompson says: “Retention and engagement is huge for us, and we don’t want to lose the skills and talent they [unpaid carers] bring to the organisation. If you can keep people feeling supported through their time of need, you get that back multiple times over.”

There is, rightfully, plenty of talk around keeping working parents in the workforce and creating reasonable adjustments to continue to let them thrive, yet the conversation around carers has been nothing short of a whisper.

Given we are all likely to become carers at one stage in our lives, it’s vital for HR to create forward-thinking, empathetic and evidence-led policies in this area. In the war for talent, and general push to improve employee wellbeing, creating allowances for the vital role carers play in society should be an absolute priority for HR.


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.