Society must adapt to support the important role of unpaid carers
The Government and employers need to collaborate to ensure that unpaid carers, including parents, are able to continue working if they wish.
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our society and economy. But the pandemic has affected some groups of people more starkly than others: those working on the frontline of our hospitals, care homes and schools, for example.
It has also heightened and highlighted the challenges facing unpaid carers – those helping another person, usually a relative or friend, in their day-to-day life.
An estimated 2.8 million workers took on additional caring responsibilities when the pandemic hit, and this number would be even higher if we included those parents who have found themselves juggling home schooling and work.
This has in turn made the challenges facing those with caring responsibilities more visible. How many of us, for example, have had a colleague’s child unexpectedly join a virtual meeting?
This is not a new challenge. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 6,000 new people were taking on unpaid caring responsibilities every day. With the UK’s population continuing to age, this number is expected to grow.
New polling commissioned by Vodafone has found that 39 per cent of people who work full time saw their caring responsibilities increase due to COVID-19 in 2020. Yet it had been suggested that even before the pandemic, as many as three in 10 workers would be forced to leave their current jobs if they had to take on greater caring responsibilities.
We could, therefore, be facing a mass exodus of the UK workforce. This not only risks the loss of years of expertise and experience; it could have a detrimental impact on the lives of carers who would otherwise wish to remain at work.
There is no getting away from the fact that this is also a major gender challenge - the majority of carers are women.
Our polling identified that, of the 77 per cent of respondents who reported sharing caring responsibilities, women were more than twice as likely to do the larger share of caring.
Failing to support carers therefore risks heightening pre-existing gender inequalities around pay, progression and participation in the workplace.
To prevent this, we need to consider how we can provide greater support to those juggling work and caring responsibilities.
We need to consider how we can provide greater support to those juggling work and caring responsibilities.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that not every role requires a physical presence in the workplace every day, a change likely to be welcomed by the 36 per cent of carers we polled who stated that they would like the option to work from home occasionally.
Employers should reflect on the benefits of flexible working witnessed during the pandemic and identify which areas might best suit the needs of their organisation and workforce moving forwards.
Clearly, different businesses and organisations will have different needs and a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.
But where a more flexible approach to work locations and hours can be taken without impacting productivity – indeed where it may well support it – this is something employers should consider.
Employers should also consider how their parental leave policies can be updated to foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
Creating an environment where all parents have the opportunity to spend more time with their children not only reduces concerns around the impact of parental leave on the finances and careers of new parents, but helps to challenge the idea that caring is a ‘women’s job’.
This in turn helps to reduce the stigma around taking time off for caring responsibilities for all employees, but particularly help male carers who may otherwise feel unrecognised or unsupported.
The Government and employers need to collaborate to ensure that unpaid carers, including parents, are able to continue working if they wish and it is crucial for businesses to set an example.
At Vodafone, any employee whose partner is having a baby, adopts a child or becomes a parent through surrogacy will have the flexibility to take up to 16 weeks paid leave at any time during the first 18 months.
This will be available to all non-birthing parents regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or length of service.
We are living through challenging and extraordinary times, but I hope that as life gradually returns to normal, we will continue to recognise the importance of unpaid carers to society and adapt our workplaces and society to support them better.