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The Future of Work: The caring workforce

6 min read Partner content

The nation’s ageing population is an issue for businesses but it is also a challenge that individual employees grapple with if they have caring responsibilities for ageing family members. As part of Legal & General’s Future of Work series, we explore what steps UK businesses can take to support carers in the workplace.

The age profile of the UK is steadily rising. This is establishing new markets for goods and services but also creating a range of challenges for the nation’s businesses.

The statistics are stark. According to ONS forecasts, the proportion of people aged 65 and above in the UK will rise to 24% by 2039, up from 18% in 2018. At the same time, the number of workers aged over 50 is expected to increase by 3.7 million between 2019 and 2029.

Those changing demographics have led to proactive action across a range of areas where businesses have worked to adapt their practices to ensure that staff are supported to remain in the workforce as they age.

However, much less well understood, is the impact that an ageing population may have on individuals working within those businesses.

This is because some of those older workers, in their 50s and early 60s, will be trying to balance their professional lives with caring responsibilities for older relatives. As workers try and juggle work with caring responsibilities, what more can UK businesses do to adapt their policies and practices to support carers who are in their workforce?

Dame Caroline Dinenage MP who is Chair of the Carers APPG told PoliticsHome that this is an important issue that is already impacting on businesses across the country.

“The UK economy and the productivity of business and employers, including the public and voluntary sectors, depends on retaining their skilled and knowledgeable staff,” she tells us. “Crucially, that increasingly includes employees juggling work with caring.”

Dame Caroline points to recent research from Carers UK, which identifies that over 7 million people in the UK are now juggling paid work alongside their caring responsibilities for family, friends of neighbours. The same research shows that each year more than 1.9 million employees take on a new caring responsibility.

The impact of the increasing number of people with caring responsibilities is already being felt by UK businesses as carers leave the labour market. Businesses are losing valuable skills and experience that are difficult to replace, particularly within a constrained labour market.

John Godfrey, Director of Levelling Up at Legal & General, believes that supporting carers in the workplace warrants a higher profile in discussions where businesses are considering the impact of an ageing population.

“For too long the primary focus of boardroom discussions about ageing has focused on workers themselves,” he tells us. “But we need to always remember that staff often have caring responsibilities outside of work too. Unless businesses take steps to understand this issue, and implement solutions, we will see many people leave the workforce. This is bad for them, bad for society, and bad for business.”

There are also signs that the issue is also rapidly rising up the agenda for politicians on both sides of the House. Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Tom Pursglove MP, told PoliticsHome that the government has already implemented changes that will strengthen the rights of those with caring responsibilities, helping retain older workers in the workforce.

“We have already made changes to Universal Credit which mean claimants can keep more of their hard-earned money – so carers are better off in work,” he tells us. “But we are building on this by supporting legislation to give all employees easier access to flexible working and help unpaid carers with a new leave entitlement. This flexibility will not only help workers but is good for businesses too.”

However, Labour’s Justin Madders MP, Shadow Minister for Employment Rights and Protections, tells us that the key challenge is less about business appetite and more about the need for regulatory reform. Madders told PoliticsHome that Labour’s New Deal for Working People would “boost productivity and unleash untapped potential” by placing increased flexibility at the heart of policy.

"The UK’s outdated labour market regulations are constricting business choices and growth,” he explains. “Many businesses are rising to the challenge, offering flexible working and support to working parents and those with caring responsibilities, but policy and regulation aren’t keeping up.”

Godfrey welcomes political action from both parties to support carers in the workplace but also calls for business itself stepping forward to show leadership on this critical issue.

“Some businesses will have policies in place, but many will not, particularly SMEs” he explains. “And the issue goes far beyond a company statement or an HR policy. As we all deal with the economic challenges of an ageing population it will be in the interests of businesses to invest in building new collaborations and relationships between themselves, healthcare providers, government, and charities.”

Dame Caroline acknowledges that there are some examples of excellent practice in this area, citing work by companies including Centrica and TSB. But, like Godfrey, she would like to see approaches to support carers mainstreamed within UK businesses.

“Employers need to provide greater flexibility and develop carer-friendly mindsets towards supporting their employees with caring responsibilities,” she tells us. “Hundreds of thousands of carers have already had to leave the labour market or reduce their hours at work. On average, 600 people per day leave work due to a lack of support juggling both responsibilities – including over 500,000 people between 2018-2020.”

In a constrained labour market, that is an exodus of skills that UK businesses simply cannot afford. By embracing flexibility and supporting staff as the health needs of those around them change, businesses will improve retention and reduce the costs associated with filling gaps in their workforce.

Dame Caroline agrees that, if businesses take action, that will ultimately deliver benefits both for themselves and for those they employ.  

“Supporting people who provide care to family members and friends to remain in work is a win-win – for the employees themselves and the businesses they work for,” she tells PoliticsHome.

It is clear that as the population ages there will be many areas where businesses need to adapt to respond to the challenges and opportunities demographic change brings. But what the issue of carers in the workplace illustrates is that the impact of an ageing population will also be felt by businesses in indirect and unexpected ways.

“The good news is that predicting the age profile of the future population is not ‘guesswork’. It is something we can accurately forecast,” says John Godfrey. “Businesses need to embrace that data, get on the front foot, and plan for the challenges ahead. Those that do will not only deliver for their employees but will also ensure that they are well-positioned to attract and retain the workforce of tomorrow.”  

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