THE BLOG
13/12/2013 11:52 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Working Later Must Include Support for Caring

The G8 conference on dementia and a recent government announcement to improve rights for working parents (but as yet nothing for carers of adults) throws an issue long in the shadows, into the limelight. Working and caring in later life may be something we all experience at some point as the logical corollary of ourselves and our parents living longer.

My organisation, TAEN - The Age and Employment Network - has recently secured funding from the European Union for a new project looking for examples of good employers' policies for working carers. We hope to devise packages that guide employees and employers in their negotiations to establish new conditions that help working carers remain at work rather than being excluded.

Good policies for working carers are slowly becoming an element in the "psychological contract" of what fair and decent employers should do for their employees. In return employers might expect to receive engagement and continued service of long established employees who might otherwise be lost to workforce.

Policy makers are fond of the mantra, live longer, work longer, as captured in an OECD report of this name. However, if they are serious, it will be necessary for policies to support the additional duties of care giving which people take on as they and their parents live to ever greater ages, and face more risks of disabling conditions.

Take the case of someone with a parent or partner, newly diagnosed as suffering with dementia. Should they not be supported in the same way as a new parent who is currently entitled to parenthood leave?

I know from personal experience how disruptive to one's career combining the two roles of working and caring can be. The predictability and consistency that employers expect of employees becomes harder to deliver when faced by the reality of providing care.

In 2005 a little over 6% of the EU's workforce were caring regularly for a relative aged 15 or more. This equates to about 13.5 million working carers EU wide. If carers of children with disabilities or long term health conditions were included, the figures would be higher.

Women are 1.6 times as likely to be working carers as men - a figure which reflects both the stronger tendency of women to be carers per se and their increased readiness to give up their jobs on taking on such roles. The net effect is that 44% of working carers are men. More than one third of working carers are in the 50 to 64 age range.

Whether it is in providing the direct hands on care to a loved one or simply fixing the problems, meeting the professionals and managing the agency staff in a domestic setting, being a carer churns out unexpected and unpredictable demands. Being a carer and a worker at the same time is something else.

The worry, grief and distress that may accompany the many changes which working carers must confront needs hardly be mentioned. No wonder huge numbers of people leave the workforce at the point of assuming the role of working carer.

Moreover, such is the labour market bias against older job seekers that getting back into work at a later date, when one has left a job to provide care, may just not be possible.

So here is a contradiction - on one hand it is expected that care support for those needing it in later life will be as far as possible be given by individual sufferers' sons, daughters or spouses, while on the other, the Government wants us to extend our working lives to remain productive and draw our pensions later.

The biggest problem which many carers of adults worry over, in addition to the well-being of their aged parent, is how to hold down their jobs and stay in the workforce.

That said many employers already do what they can to support employees by allowing flexibility and helping them in times of dramatic change in family circumstances. If only all employers did the same!

Surveys have shown that problems of combining working and caring roles are widespread throughout Europe.

The American older persons' social enterprise, the AARP, is offering a Best Employers International (BEI) award which encourages employers to create working environments that value older and younger employees alike. (To declare an interest, my own charity TAEN is supporting this and I am one of the international judges).

We will be looking for policies for working carers as well as decent standards in the design of work, lifelong learning / job training, flexible working, and benefits which generally support the health and financial security of employees.

But many working carers live in fear of the sack for taking time off at unpredicted times. An adverse impact of some kind on employment from working and caring is common. It can range from losing out in a promotion or passing up the chance to progress in one's career, to lower bonuses and salaries.

Yet properly supported, working carers may have many years of valuable service to offer their employer.

People should not have to choose between working and caring - though this is so often the stark reality. If someone is forced to give up his or her career in their fifties, what hope may they have of working until their late sixties, as the Government increasingly expects?