Father and son fixing a bike

Who cares for UK's 6 million employed carers?

According to research from Unum UK, in spring 2022 21% of workers said they were in the ‘sandwich generation’,1 caring for both young children and ageing relatives.

When you map that onto the UK’s population of 28 million or so full- and part-time employees — 28 million or so at the time — it means almost 6 million people juggle work with dual caring responsibilities.

That’s before considering many carers may fall outside the sandwich generation, caring for just young children or just ageing relatives, or are self-employed. The true number of working carers is therefore likely even higher.

Unpaid carers are worth £162 billion a year in England and Wales.2 They play such an important and valuable role — and not only for the family, friends and neighbours they help live longer in the community. Their efforts support the economy, the NHS and our social care system.

But who cares for carers?

The difficulties carers face

According to Unum’s research, the strain of being in the sandwich generation takes a toll on carers’ mental, financial and even physical health. Among sandwich generation workers:

  • 35% say caring has impacted their mental health
  • 29% say it’s impacted their financial health
  • 25% feel it has affected their physical health.

Meanwhile, 13% reported feeling forced to leave an unsupportive employer who didn’t understand their caring role.

Indeed, Carers UK reveals that around 600 people in the UK give up work each day to care for an older or disabled relative. This means forgoing an income and relying on benefits such as Carer’s Allowance — the lowest benefit of its kind.

To get Carer’s Allowance in 2022/23, you cannot earn more than £139 per week. That means the almost 950,000 working-age people receiving Carer’s Allowance3 have a de facto cap on their take-home, earned income of just over £7,000 each year if they want to keep their benefit.

Even for those receiving Carers Allowance, they receive £76.75 per week — providing they’re caring for someone at least 35 hours per week. That’s £2.19 per hour. For contrast, the National Living Wage for a person aged 23+ is £10.42.

How does caring impact work?

For those still trying to juggle work and caring, 20% of sandwich generation workers admit they’re less productive at work due to their caring responsibilities. 24% of such workers indicate caring has caused them to take time off work, while caring responsibilities pushed a further 16% to take time off sick.

This fits with a report by Public Health England that found carers are at a higher risk of illnesses, in particular musculoskeletal conditions, cardiovascular disease and poor sleep.4

How can managers help?

Carers who have to give up work not only face financial difficulties. Giving up work can also be detrimental to their mental health, self-worth and self-esteem.

Yet despite this, 31% of sandwich generation workers say their employer poorly understands their caring responsibilities. Furthermore, fewer than a third of sandwich generation staff receive help from their employer with their caring responsibilities in the form of remote working when required, emergency leave to care for ill dependents or an employee assistance programme (EAP).

And more than 1 in 5 sandwich generation employees (21%) said that their employer offered no support at all.

The benefits of making workplaces more carer-friendly

Providing the right support can help businesses retain valuable talent, expertise and experience. However, this relies on knowing who in your business is a carer and making efforts to understand what this means for them.

Does your business have a culture of openness that encourages employees to ask for help if they need it? For some companies, it may work to ask employees outright if they have caring responsibilities and how you can support them. 

If you feel employees would be more comfortable sharing anonymously, consider an anonymous survey asking if they are carers and how you can support them.

As a starter, some of the other actions employees wanted to see to improve support for the sandwich generation were:

  • Improving flexible working arrangements (43%)
  • Creating a specific support programme, including signposting to external care (35%)
  • Improving/providing resources for life and wellbeing support (31%)
  • Providing childcare resources, for example on-site childcare or financial support for childcare (31%)
  • Improving/giving access to mental health assistance (26%).

Liz Walker, COO, Unum UK says:

“There’s an urgent need for employers to support employees with care responsibilities by providing benefits and resources that can help to reduce the strain. By supporting the sandwich generation and working carers to stay in work, you are retaining skilled employees, improving productivity and benefiting the wider economy.”

So, what can employers do to help?

  1. Communicate — lessen the taboo by taking a top-down approach. If someone in senior leadership is going through a situation of caring and working, sharing their story, if comfortable, will help others realise that channels of communication are open across the company
  2. Provide benefits and resources but ensure these are signposted clearly — particularly financial education and mental health support
  3. A flexible work environment is the benefit most valued by the sandwich generation. Consider flexi-time, job sharing or compressed hours.

Support from Unum

Employees covered by a Unum Group Risk policy get access to various support services that can be useful for carers.

Our award-winning health and wellbeing app Help@hand5 includes an integrated employee assistance programme. Featuring a 24/7 helpline for support on all aspects of life and wellbeing, including caring, employees can also call for guidance on financial and legal matters. The app also offers access to unlimited mental health support6 from qualified mental healthcare professionals from employees who may be struggling with their wellbeing as they try to balance caring and work.

Making support available to carers is already hugely important for both employees and businesses today, but it will become essential in the future. Before 2050, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) projects that the number of people in the UK aged 85 or older will almost double compared with 2020, rising from 1.7 million to 3.1 million.

Meanwhile, the ONS reports that the mean age of a person giving birth in England and Wales was 30.9 in 2021 (up from 27.7 in 1991). Over the same period, the mean age of the person listed as the father (a definition which, since 2009, incorporates the second parent for same-sex couples regardless of their sex) rose from 30.8 to 33.7. 

With a rising number of older people and parents having children later in life, it’s likely the sandwich generation will grow in the future. It will therefore be increasingly important for employers to address issues surrounding employees with dual caring responsibilities and ensure they have everything they need to thrive.

1 Research conducted by Opinium between 4-8 March 2022 amongst a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults
Making caring visible, valued and supported: Carers Week 2022 report, Carers Week (June 2022), p.3
Informal carers, House of Commons (June 2022), p.23
Caring as a social determinant of health, Public Health England (March 2021), p.5
5 Help@hand is provided to Unum Group customers by Square Health. It offers access to services designed to manage the health and wellbeing of employees and their families. Help@hand is entirely separate from any Unum insurance policy. Help@hand is not part of the insurance contract, is provided by Unum for no additional cost to its customers, and Unum can withdraw or change the service in the future. Help@hand is available to UK residents only. Unum offers access to the Help@hand services provided by third parties.
Square Health Limited, registered in England and Wales Number 07054181. Crown House, William Street, Windsor SL4 1AT.
6 For mild to moderate issues. Number of sessions subject to clinical appropriateness. Should the service be no longer suitable, users will be directed to alternative appropriate support.

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