To mark Carers Week 2019, Shubhanna discusses how carers how can be supported in employment.
Around 9 years ago, when my caring role at home increased quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I reluctantly made the decision to take a career break; my employer was unable to offer me the flexibility that I needed, and I no longer had the strength to convince them otherwise. At the time I had absolutely no idea when, or even if, I would ever be able to return to paid employment again. My husband’s health had begun to deteriorate and he was showing some early signs of a neurological condition; our youngest child was failing to meet some significant developmental milestones, and my mother, who had always been my strength during times of crisis, was now dealing with a number of new diagnoses.
For the next few years, as well as providing the care that my family needed, I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the bewildering, bureaucratic and often complex health, social care and welfare systems in Scotland. Over time, I realised that I was no longer seen as just a mum, a wife, and a daughter — I had now somehow become an ‘advocate’ for my child’s health and educational needs, and a ‘co-ordinator’ for my husband’s and mother’s health and social care needs.
Fast forward to 2019, and I still have a fairly active caring role at home, but I am now also juggling this alongside my role at the Coalition of Carers in Scotland. When I was offered the job last summer, I was slightly apprehensive about whether I would be able to manage a fairly demanding role at the Coalition alongside my caring responsibilities at home. To be honest, it has not always been easy to balance the demands of our rather hectic home life with the requirements of the job. In fact, it’s only really been possible because I am employed by one the few Carer Positive employers in Scotland who have achieved ‘exemplary’ status, and because after years of muddling through, we finally have a package of social care support which meets the needs of our family and therefore enables me to have some semblance of a life alongside my multiple caring role.
So, what does it mean to be employed by a Carer Positive employer? Well, for me it means having the flexibility to work from home when I need to (and even on occasions from the hospital waiting room!). It means having a carer leave policy in place so that I am able to take time off if my caring responsibilities ever get too much. But, most importantly of all, having a Carer Positive employer means that I am surrounded by some of the most supportive colleagues and board members, many of whom have first hand experience themselves of managing a caring role alongside working life.
As well as having a supportive employer, I do believe that the right social care support is absolutely vital to ensure that carers can continue to have a job and career alongside their caring role. For us as a family, having access to our own budget through self-directed support has meant that we are able to organise replacement care and support much more easily for the times when I am not at home; its not always perfect, but it’s a vast improvement to where we were a few years ago. My mother has also had adaptations made to her home recently and is able to access the local mobile emergency care service (MECS) for when she is on her own. Now, these may not sound like huge interventions, and they’re not; but these types of early interventions are enough to reassure my mother that she will be safe, and they are enough to stop me from constantly worrying about her having another fall or worse.
It is estimated that around 270,000 people in Scotland are currently juggling a caring role alongside their working life. With an increasing number of people living longer with chronic and lifelong conditions, it is inevitable that many more people, from across all professions and sectors will also take on a caring role for family members at some point in their working lives. Being in employment, when you have a significant caring role can be demanding. Unfortunately, austerity measures over the last decade have meant that taking some time off, or reducing hours at work is not always an option for some carers.
Other than providing financial security, carers tell us that going into work can often help them to feel less isolated and more connected to the outside world, and give them a sense of identity and purpose outwith their caring role. However, without the right support from employers and social work services, we find that too many carers are forced to give up their jobs and careers, or end up experiencing a complete burn out.
Research by Carers UK earlier this year revealed that more than 300,000 people in Scotland have quit their job to care for an older, disabled or seriously ill relative. Carers who give up work or reduce their hours often feel that they are being penalised for choosing to care for their family members and worry about the impact that this will have on their future earning potential and career prospects, as well as the impact that it will have on their ability to contribute towards their pension pot. Not surprisingly, this constant worry about the future and their finances has a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of many carers.
It is imperative therefore, that we start to share and build on some of the good practice that already exists in parts of Scotland and ensure that carers who wish to continue working alongside their caring role, are supported to do so by their employers, social services, and policy makers. We also need to ensure that more is done to support those who would like to return to employment after their caring role comes to an end or reduces; at the moment there is very little practical or financial support to enable this to happen.
If local and national governments genuinely value the contributions that carers are making to the local and national economy, and to the over stretched health and social care system, and most importantly to the lives of the people that they support and advocate for on a daily basis, then we need to start seeing some of the policy intentions to support working carers be put into practice now. We know that employers aren’t always able to offer carers the flexibility that they require; and carers aren’t always able to access the social care support that they need to continue working alongside their caring role. There is an urgent need therefore to re-think what social care support should look like for those with care needs and their carers, and how this support should be structured and resourced. We also need to be much more ambitious about the ways in which employers can be better supported to offer more flexible working options to those with caring responsibilities. Without the right support in place, we know that it is only a matter of time before carers who are currently juggling work commitments alongside their caring role will reach a breaking point; something which could so easily have been prevented from even happening in the first place.