Caring for others can be difficult even at the best of times, but the pandemic has created a whole host of new challenges for an undervalued and largely invisible group of people who save the economy millions of pounds every year.
June provides much deserved recognition for Carers Week. But for 52 weeks of the year, an estimated 6.5 million unpaid people care for a family member or friend who may be ill, or physically or mentally disabled, saving the economy an estimated £132 billion per year – an average of £19,336 per carer1.
However, as of 2020, Carers UK estimates there are around 13.6 million people caring through the pandemic – more than double the usual figure2.
Yet these already beleaguered people are constantly facing increased pressure, physically, mentally and financially. This year, Carers Week aims to ‘Make Caring Visible and Valued’ – recognising the difficulties carers face, respected for what they do, and just as vital, provided with the right information, understanding and support.
So who cares for the carers? And what can you do to help employees with caring responsibilities?
Caring in the UK
Even in more normal circumstances, another 6,000 people take on a caring responsibility every day – over 2 million people each year. More than 1.3 million people provide over 50 hours of care per week and over a million people look after more than one person. That burden often falls to women rather than men, (58% vs 42% respectively), adding even more pressure on top of the needs of people’s jobs and careers3.
Gender aside, and unsurprisingly given the very nature of caring, almost two-thirds of carers (64%) say they focused on the needs of those they care for, rather than their own4.
So it’s little wonder carers need support. But that support can sometimes be sadly lacking, both in and out of the workplace.
The financial cost of caring
Carers UK’s latest State of Caring report from 2019 found more than a third of carers (39%) said they were struggling to make ends meet. Over two-thirds (68%) said they regularly used their own income or dipped into savings to pay for care, support services, equipment or products, while more than half (53%) were unable to save any money towards their own retirement. To make matters worse, 1-in-8 carers received less care or support services compared to 2018 , while the government’s Carer’s Allowance offers just £67.60 for a minimum of 35 hours6.
The mental and physical cost of caring during Covid
The coronavirus pandemic could see these numbers rise even more. With lockdown and shielding among the vulnerable often the norm over the last 15 or so months, many more people have found themselves cut adrift from much of the support that offered them a lifeline from the constant demands of caring for someone.
A small 2020 study by NICE (the National Institute for Care and Excellence) highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on carers, including social isolation, a decline in mental health, lack of support groups, lack of respite, concerns about physical health and difficulties accessing appointments7.
Alzheimer’s Society also conducted their own survey, ‘Worst hit: dementia with coronavirus’.
The study revealed that more than a quarter of those who died from coronavirus in England and Wales had dementia, making it the most common pre-existing condition for coronavirus deaths. At the pandemic’s peak, twice as many people with dementia died compared to what would normally be expected.
The study also revealed the terrible strain on carers looking after people with dementia in unprecedented times.
An incredible 92 million extra hours were estimated to be spent by family and friends caring for loved ones with dementia. Around three-quarters (73%) said their caring responsibilities had increased since lockdown, while 76% said these had increased because of worsening dementia symptoms in the person they cared for.
More than 9 out of 10 carers (95%) reported their increased responsibilities had a negative impact on their mental or physical health, while 69% were constantly exhausted, 64% felt anxious, and almost half (49%) felt depressed.
In March 2021, a report by Public Health England found carers are at a higher risk of illness – particularly musculoskeletal conditions, cardiovascular disease, a general decline in cognitive abilities, and poor sleep. It also reinforced that carers struggle to access support services and are at risk of financial hardship8.
Providing carers with the right support
Currently, around 5 million people – 1 in 7 of the UK workforce – are juggling caring responsibilities with the demands of their workplace. And it’s a struggle that many are losing. Some 600 of us give up work every day to care for an older or disabled relative9.
There’s clearly a lot more that needs to be done to support the UK’s unpaid army of carers. As pressure grows on the government to act, support is largely left to charities like Carers UK and Alzheimer’s Society.
But providing the right support at work could go some way to ensuring businesses retain valuable talent, expertise and experience. Employers too can act to ease the strain on employees who are caring for someone, but may be completely unaware that their own people may be struggling.
To find out the state of play in your company, there are some key questions you should ask yourself.
- Do you know if any of your employees have caring responsibilities?
- Does your business have a culture of openness that encourages employees to ask for help if they need it?
- What support do I already have in place that can help carers?
If someone is overwhelmed, both their mental and physical health can suffer, potentially leading to extended time off work. Not only is looking after your people the right thing to do, it makes sound business sense. But too often very few businesses have a carers policy in place to guide them.
A carers policy will ensure you have a clear pathway and a consistent approach to help carers cope with the pressures they face, while making sure their valuable skills aren’t lost to you.
Healthwatch surveyed 200 carers to ask what support they wanted. The results suggested four key areas – areas you can use and adapt to frame a policy:
- A one-stop shop – carers want to access up-to-date information, support and benefits
- Training – many carers have no training to support a loved one, such as first aid, which can leave them feeling unprepared, vulnerable and overwhelmed.
- Recognition that everyone has different needs
- The opportunity to take time out and talk10
Your policy should include clear guidelines around time off and flexible working, such as flexitime or the ability to work from home – even when the working environment returns to some semblance of post-pandemic normal. It should also offer clear signposting to available support, either through your own occupational health or wellbeing initiatives, or those provided by third-parties, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that may typically come with other employee benefits.
As an example, many Unum customers are eligible to recieve access to Help@hand (full details), our health and wellbeing app that provides fast, direct access to five key support services. Among others, this includes a remote GP, physiotherapy and mental health support that can help carers who may be having problems with stress, anxiety or depression, or musculoskeletal problems such as back pain.
Our EAP, LifeWorks – provided by Morneau Shepell – offers people emotional and practical support, and has a section dedicated to carers. This includes a three-part series, ‘Caring when you work’, designed to help employees cope with the twin responsibilities of caring for someone and work, and provides practical help and resources.
Customers could also take advantage of our wellbeing checks. Carried out over the phone by our in-house Rehabilitation team, our wellbeing checks provide expert guidance and self-management techniques for employees who may be struggling with their wellbeing.
You may like to consider creating an Employee Resource Group (ERG). An ERG made up of carers and others who are in a position to help, such as HR or a senior manager, can be a useful network for people to share experiences, raise awareness and represent the carers’ needs to the company.
Carers UK are also working with Carers Trust and the Department of Health and Social Care to create a Carers Passport scheme. The scheme is designed to help people in five key settings, including employment.
Among other initiatives, it aims to raise awareness, make carers feel valued, provide a simple, understandable offer of support, and provide help and assistance to key managers and professionals. You can find out more about the Carers Passport scheme at carerpassport.uk
The future of caring
Carers Trust reported in 2016 that the following decade would see people over 85 – those most likely to need care – increase by 50%. They also estimated that in the next 30 years, the number of carers will increase by 3.4 million, an increase of 60%11.
In 2017, Healthwatch also suggested more than 9 million people will become an unpaid carer over the next 20 years12.
Caring for others is set to become a large part of people’s lives in the future. The more organisations do to help carers, now and in the future, will benefit everyone – employee, employer and the community.
1, 2, 3 https://www.carersuk.org/news-and-campaigns/press-releases/facts-and-figures
4, 5 http://www.carersuk.org/stateofcaring-report