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I don’t remember exactly when the thought struck me but at some point this year I realised that if employers did an audit to see how many of their staff were trying to work while taking care of an ageing relative, the results would be stunning.
Almost overnight it seemed every second person I knew in their forties or fifties was struggling to fit caring duties into a busy day job, with highly mixed results.
There was the man who was chewed out by his boss over a work glitch as he rushed about a hospital abroad trying to organise care for his 70-something mother after she had a fall.
There was the woman who kept a longstanding commitment to speak at an online conference while sitting on the floor in a deskless bedroom as her father-in-law lay dying upstairs.
And there were multiple couples, some with pre-teen children, whose weekends and holidays had become a blur of motorway dashes and train trips to attend to two sets of deteriorating parents.
The striking thing was not that all this care was being done. As people live longer, they inevitably need help from relatives who want to give it. Researchers estimate the equivalent of 600 people a day give up paid work in the UK to care. Most are female.
Women have a 50:50 chance of being a carer by the age of 46, while men face the same odds by the time they turn 57, and official figures suggest there are at least 5.7mn unpaid UK carers in total.
But the more arresting aspect of what my friends were doing was the added layer of stress that came from acting on the sly.
They repeatedly took vacation time for caring that was not remotely like the holiday a lot of them very much needed.
Few had a manager who knew what was going on. Some feared that alerting a superior to their situation would spell career harm. Others doubted their manager would help.
“Companies really should keep better track of this,” said one man who had taken a week off this year after his elderly mother fell; another when she crashed her car and another when she had a day-long battery of dementia tests in hospital.
“I’m going to be totally burnt out,” he said. “Managers should know what’s going on in people’s lives.”
They should. But there is one good reason why there is less focus on time off for caring: unlike other types of family leave, employers are often not legally required to offer it.
Leave to help working parents look after their children has rightly existed in many parts of the world for years, as has leave after childbirth or adoption. A few countries go further. In Japan, which has one of the world’s oldest populations, staff have a legal right to take time off to care, plus extra days of leave for doing the caring.
It took until this year for the UK parliament to pass the Carers Leave Act, which allows one week’s unpaid leave a year for workers caring for a relative or dependant. One week wouldn’t be enough for the carers I know, but the new law should still make a big difference.
“It will make this type of care much more visible,” says Emily Holzhausen, policy director at the Carers UK charity. That visibility should make it easier to request and arrange carer leave.
It will be even better if more employers follow the lead of companies such as Centrica, the UK energy group. For more than a decade it has offered 10 days of paid carer leave and in 2019 it allowed another 10 days if taken with matched annual leave — so if two days off were needed, one would be carer leave and the other annual leave.
Insanely costly and open to abuse? Centrica says not. Its staff took an average of just 3.4 days of matched leave a year pre-pandemic. And it calculates the policy saved it £1.8mn a year by avoiding unplanned absences and underperformance, and another £1.3mn from retaining people who might have otherwise left.
Not every employer is as large as Centrica but the business case they make for more generous carer leave is compelling. The human case, meanwhile, is overwhelming and growing.