Helen Walker: The voluntary sector is uniquely placed to lead the way in supporting working carers

The Carer’s Leave Act comes into force this year – but why stop there when creating a carer-friendly workplace can bring benefits for employers and employees alike?

As we reflect on the past year there will be one thing that all chief executives in our sector and beyond will agree on, which is that recruitment and retention has become one of our biggest challenges. It is a challenge we are unlikely to see change in 2024.

It is a particular problem for charities as we simply do not have the option of increasing salaries significantly, so exemplary terms and conditions are our only solution. That is why our sector is uniquely placed to lead the way in providing support for working carers.

In 2024, the Carer’s Leave Act will come into force, giving new rights for people juggling unpaid care and paid employment. This is a huge cause for celebration, making a tangible difference to the estimated 2.5 million working carers in Britain.

However there is much more left to do to combat inequalities in employment. Four in 10 (40 per cent) of unpaid carers providing high levels of care – upwards of 35 hours a week – are giving up work to care, while 22 per cent are reducing their working hours.

This data from our State of Caring 2023 survey shows just how demanding managing these dual responsibilities can be.

The Carer’s Leave Act will give employees looking after friends and relatives who are elderly, disabled or chronically ill up to five days of statutory unpaid leave, to take time off work to provide care.

But why stop there when creating a carer-friendly workplace can bring big benefits for employers and employees alike?

By helping staff with caring responsibilities to stay in work you can improve retention and wellbeing, reduce hiring costs and make your organisation attractive to new talent all at the same time. Many of the adjustments needed are simple, cost-effective and vital within a tight labour market.

Carers often tell us that without the ability to be flexible with their hours or to work at home they wouldn’t be able to work, so I’m pleased to see our sector already leading the way with this.

The NCVO’s 2023 UK Civil Society Almanac indicates that about one-third of the voluntary sector works from home or in a hybrid capacity – a figure higher than the public and private sectors.

It is also critical that workplaces raise awareness of what it means to be an unpaid carer, providing training for managers and adjusting work-based policies with carers in mind.

All staff at Carers UK have access to the Employers for Carers Digital platform, a suite of digital resources that offers support for carers on topics including looking after their health, financial planning and seeking support at work.

It includes our Jointly app, which helps families to organise and share care and hosts a wide range of information for staff who are line managers or have employee wellbeing responsibilities.

We are also working with hundreds of employers who are making the platform available to carers in their workplace.

Draft regulations indicate that the Carer’s Leave Act will come into force on 6 April. While we are excited to see new rights for working carers coming in, we also know that paid carer’s leave makes an even bigger difference, especially to staff on lower incomes.

At Carers UK I’m proud that we’re leading the way by providing 10 days of paid carer’s leave for all employees, regardless of length of service, as well as giving access to an employee assistance programme to support staff mental health and wellbeing.

We make sure that we embed all policies and, even though we are an organisation of fewer than 70 staff, we have a network of carers, which allows people to share different experiences and support each other.

Our longer-term campaigning goal is to see the right to unpaid carer’s leave become a paid right – in the same way that we have seen rights grow for parents over time.

We know how instrumental those rights are to help parents stay in the labour market. With our ageing population, supporting caring further up the age spectrum will become increasingly important.

In the voluntary sector we are experts at leading change and have a real opportunity to demonstrate best practice in this area.

Soon all employers will have a legal duty to recognise working carers, and this will be prompting many new discussions around unpaid care. With one in seven carers in every workplace, do you have a support plan in place?

Helen Walker is chief executive of Carers UK


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