In the West, we are all living longer. Indeed, the fact our retirement ages keep getting pushed back suggests we are expected to have many more years of productive life than was the case in previous generations. While this is undoubtedly a triumph in terms of advances in medicine, nutrition and lifestyle, at the same time, it has thrown up a huge challenge for families, communities and institutions who have to work out how to care for elderly people for much longer periods of time than ever before. In particular, it has created a generation of ‘working carers’ who balance caring for an elderly relative with trying to build and sustain a career themselves.
It is easy to see why the increasing numbers of working carers might create difficulties for organisations, and for HR and resource planning departments in particular. The advent of caring responsibilities often comes unexpectedly, as an elderly relative suddenly becomes less capable of looking after him- or herself. Caring responsibilities can feel open-ended and unpredictable, and it is impossible to know whether they are going to last for months, years or even decades. It is not easy to adjust workload allocations and expectations when it is unclear how long-lasting or how intensive an employee’s caring duties will be.
For working carers themselves, the advent of caring responsibilities can represent a serious challenge to their sense of identity. We live in a world where the idea that professionalism equals dedication reigns supreme. Corporate strategists and culture change specialists strive for high levels of organisational commitment from their employees. The business literature abounds with terms such as employee engagement and models of organisational transformation which emphasise the importance of employees being inspired by, even devoted to, their leaders and the corporate vision they espouse. Most management consultants and OD strategists would probably agree employees need to have ‘skin in the game’ if an organisation’s objectives are to be achieved. And for working carers, of course, there is more than one ‘game’ making claims on their ‘skin’.
Across both private and public sectors, organisations are working hard to try to help the increasing numbers of working carers in their midst. Many have established support networks, and introduced a range of policies including paid and unpaid leave to try to acknowledge the complexities of balancing work and care. Appraisal systems are being reworked to try to set performance in context, and to focus on quality rather than quantity of contribution. In some of the organisations I have visited, senior leaders talk openly and publically about their own caring responsibilities and about the practical and emotional impact these have had on their work and sense of professional identity. This is powerful stuff, because it can help to dissolve the shame and anxiety that employees feel when their domestic lives make it impossible to be the perfectly engaged employee that has traditionally been required for career success.
However, despite the valiant efforts of many organisational leaders, HR professionals and line managers, I think there is still an assumption that becoming a working carer is basically a problem – both for the organisation and for the individual. However sympathetic colleagues, managers and support staff try to be, there is an underlying sense that care disrupts, even destroys, careers.
Facts about carers – from the campaigning group Carers UK
An opportunity for organisational life?
I want to challenge this assumption that care necessarily destroys careers by asking the question:
“What is it that we experience as carers that might help, rather than hinder, us in our organisational lives?”
In other words, I think we might look at our experiences of care as a valuable resource and source of expertise. This relates to our experiences of both giving and receiving care, and to how these inform and shape our interpersonal relationships throughout our lives. I make this somewhat provocative suggestion not because I want to downplay how tough being a working carer is. Nor do I deny that having to incorporate different work patterns and unpredictable availabilities can be extremely disruptive in organisational life, and trigger all sorts of resentments among colleagues who are left holding the fort.
But there is an extraordinarily powerful upside to having the notion of care at the heart of our organisational lives. This is because care experiences are all about asymmetrical or unequal relationships – about the way in which people interact when one person has more power or capability or capacity than another. And this is precisely the kind of interaction that underpins many key debates in business, including:
- Relationships between leaders and followers - which are marked by differences in status, power, experience and/or expertise.
- Decisions over leadership and change management methods - especially those which involve deciding between ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ approaches.
- Ideas about ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems - and the extent to which stakeholders are either directed or empowered to participate in their resolution.
All three of these examples involve understanding the power dynamics of asymmetrical or unequal relationships. All three of them have a noticeable presence on the curricula of both corporate and academic leadership and management development programmes. And, in my view, all three of them are illuminated through the prism of our experiences of care.
This is because caring involves taking decisions about how to manage differences in status, power and expertise, without dominating or infantilising the other person. Caring also means coming to terms with being on the receiving end of a whole host of projected emotions, often in the form of anger, resentment and frustration. These are often completely unfair and unreasonable, but then again, so are the feelings of fury and disappointment that are hurled at leaders when they let us down and prove to be mere mortals after all. Our expectations of both ourselves and others in caring relationships evoke incredibly strong and primitive emotions. Acknowledging and coming to terms with these in our private lives might – just might – help us to acknowledge and come to terms with them in our working lives, too.
These thoughts dovetail with increasing calls for organisational life to be infused by an ‘ethic of care’. For me, the idea that care relates to ethics is really important, because it stimulates reflection on the meaning of our work and our organisational commitments, rather than pushing us always to be looking for ways to get more efficient. Indeed, my arguments about how care might enhance our working lives will lose their power and authenticity if they get leveraged into policies or procedures – or into jargon or sound-bites. In my view, an ‘ethic of care’ is not a shiny new model or theory that can be turned into a recipe for business success. Instead, it involves reconnecting with what we already know as human beings - with our understandings of the emotional dynamics of our selves and our relationships with others. Care is an opportunity, not in the sense that organisations can colonise and yoke it to issues of business performance, but more in the sense that, as human beings, we might reflect on how our experiences of our lives outside work might not be so different or disconnected from our experiences of our lives inside it.
An ‘ethic of care’ in organisational life involves:
Leah Tomkins is a senior lecturer in organisation studies at The Open University Business School