Informal care in the workplace – time to address the elephant in the room

Vivek Patni, CEO and co-founder, Lavanya Plus

Over recent years there has been a notable rise in the number of organisations engaging with employees about their health, both mental and physical.

Last month, 30 large companies – including Barclays, Royal Mail, and John Lewis – signed the Mental Health at Work Commitment, recognising the importance of promoting staff wellbeing and good mental health. Elsewhere, a recent study by Willis Towers Watson found that 75% of employers are planning to incorporate ‘wellbeing’ into their benefits strategies.

This progress is, of course, to be celebrated. Yet as organisations become more aware of issues such as mental ill health and presenteeism in the workplace, we are at risk of overlooking another critical issue: informal carers.

An informal carer is an individual who provides free, ongoing care to someone close to them. This might involve arranging care services for an elderly relative or cleaning the house of a neighbour.

At present, 18% of UK adults in full-time work also act as an informal carer. It is a significant undertaking; it can be stressful, time-consuming and emotionally draining.

However, employers are doing little to address the matter. In fact, a recent survey of more than 2,000 employees commissioned by WeMa revealed that a massive 88% of organisations offer no formal support to informal carers within their workforce.

It is time we started the conversation around this topic. And it is time employers began to recognise just how prevalent it is for a member of staff to juggle their professional duties with those of organising or providing care to others.

Employee wellbeing and productivity

It may seem somewhat crude to bring productivity into the debate when discussing employee wellbeing. In truth, though, it is undeniably that the two are interlinked.

Simply put, if an employee is happier and free of stress or anxiety then they are likely to work more efficiently. Employers, in turn, can improve productivity by looking after their staff. And the figures prove it.

Within the UK, mental health problems in the workplace cost the economy approximately £70 billion annually, with 91 million workdays are lost in the UK due to symptoms of mental illness. These statistics are becoming increasingly well-known and, importantly, have formed a central part of the narrative inspiring employers to act on the problems.

The same is certainly true when it comes to informal carers. The aforementioned WeMa study found that half (50%) of full-time staff who also act as a carer to a loved one feel their dual responsibilities are hampering their ability to their job. What’s more, 49% have used sick days as an excuse to get off work and provide care for someone.

The case for employers is clear; provide better support for employees who act as informal carers, delivering the necessary policies and structure they need, and these individuals will become far more productive. It’s a win-win scenario.

On a personal note, this is a situation I know all too well. The inspiration for the launch of WeMa came from the fact that my family and I were looking after an elderly relative and realise just how difficult it was to find and arrange the necessary care he required. It is a process we are simplifying, and we are working with employers to make it easier still for people to source, book and pay for the services they need (for themselves or others).

Providing the right support

So, how can we tackle the issues facing informal carers in the workplace?

To answer this one must understand the most common challenges informal carers encounter.

Firstly, informal carers must know what services are required – does the person they are helping to look after need domiciliary care, physiotherapy, companionship, domestic services (cooking, cleaning and so forth), or a combination of multiple services. Once the exact requirements are established, the frequency of the services must also be confirmed.

Secondly, an informal carer must then actually source the right service providers. They must be reputable and local.

And thirdly, the services must be paid for and managed – ensuring the delivery of the services run smoothly for both the care provider and the user.

These three different phases each present their own unique challenges. Employers can help, though; they can implement policies, structures and services that will offer informal carers within the workforce the advice, guidance, time and support (whether emotional or financial) to alleviate as many of the pressures as they can.

WeMa was designed to do just this. WeMa Care acts as a concierge service within organisations – HR teams can make it available to employees so they can gain access to advice around which services they need and how frequently. WeMa Life – an online marketplace – then connects care providers with those in need of their services, while WeMa Plus is a business tool to enable a more efficient delivery of care.

What matters most, however, is that organisations first start the conversation about informal carers in the workplace. Almost one in five full-time employees has the unenviable task of providing ongoing care for someone close to them, but at present they are receiving little-to-no support from the employer around this issue.

We must begin talking about this topic, ensuring it forms part of the wider discussion about employees’ health and wellbeing. In turn, employers – and particularly HR teams – will recognise just how pertinent an issue it is, which ought to encourage action that will simultaneously improve an organisation’s productivity and the welfare of staff.

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