Care or career – it doesn’t have to be a choice

Do you know which one of your nearest eight colleagues provides unpaid care for a loved one? The number of working adults who juggle unpaid carer’s responsibilities is high, hidden, and growing. Most working Aussies will have unpaid care responsibilities intrude regularly throughout their careers. Many won’t feel comfortable exercising their right to request flexible working arrangements for fear of ‘flexism’. But without appropriate support to balance work and family responsibilities, carers’ own wellbeing and productivity can suffer and in the worst case, they may exit the workforce completely.

As the demands on working carers increase, employers who create a culture of care, where the challenges for working carers are understood and flexible working arrangements are mainstream, will be best-placed to attract and retain diverse talent.

The costs of care are significant for carers and employers

The number and age range of employees with care responsibilities is expanding. Later retirement means many experienced workers also care for elderly family members. The trend towards having children later in life has created a ‘sandwich generation’ with responsibilities to care for both their young children and elderly parents, while the ‘club sandwich’ generation support parents, adult children and grandchildren! The extraordinary cost of care and shift towards at-home childcare and elder care raises the intensity of direct care responsibilities and remote ‘care management’.

The personal costs of juggling care and career are profound. The challenges faced by working carers can result in absenteeism, or presenteeism with a significant ‘distraction factor’. Unexpected, recurring or enduring disruptions to work can undermine career goals, and the burden of care responsibilities can cause severe stress and poor mental health outcomes. Many carers reduce their hours, forego career opportunities and some even leave the workforce prematurely. Most working carers are aged between 45 and 64 years old, and 35% are managers and professionals. The costs to businesses from avoidable loss of talent, experience and institutional knowledge, plus productivity and turnover costs, are too high to ignore.

Aim to think flexibly about providing flexibility

There’s a massive opportunity for employers to position themselves as employers of choice by developing an understanding of the challenges faced by carers in their workforce, and reconsidering how to facilitate flexibility to support working carers. While many employers excel at providing flexibility for carers at particular, predictable points in time (the most obvious example being for new parents), a different mix of flexible working arrangements and support mechanisms are needed to support employees whose care responsibilities can be unexpected, episodic and enduring.

National Carers Week marks the perfect opportunity to kick off the conversation. The hardest part is getting started, but the five-step roadmap below will point you in the right direction:

  1. Conduct a care census. Build an awareness and understanding of the nature and extent of the challenges employees face in balancing career and care and the areas in which they need support to successfully combine work and care.
  2. Get the team involved. Focus on team design rather than role design and collaborate on team-based flexibility solutions. Consider how the components of all team members’ roles can be covered without inconveniencing customers or colleagues and maintaining quality and service standards. Of course, this isn’t necessarily straightforward and it’s important to be fair and equitable to other staff, but it’s easier when we think of work as an outcome we produce, rather than a place or time.
  3. Find your flexibility advocates. Demonstrate to your workforce that flexible working is mainstream, gender neutral, outcome-orientated and can work at all levels.
  4. Empower leaders to have positive discussions about flexible working. Support employees’ career progression by being transparent about how compensation and promotion decisions will be handled when working flexibly, and how they can ease back into work or take on more responsibility once their caring responsibilities reduce or end.
  5. Track the take-up of flexible working options and support mechanisms for carers. If they’re not attractive, or not reaching a particular group within the broader population of carers, keep exploring opportunities and trying other alternatives.

Flex-agility is the way of the future workplace

Undertaking a care census and revisiting the flexibility options can help employers to future-proof the workplace by supporting employees to balance care responsibilities with work as the need arises throughout their career. Building a culture of care and designing appropriate supports for carers in the workplace is a complex, long-term undertaking. But the sooner that employers discover how best to support working carers, the more they stand to gain from allowing them to reach their performance potential. In turn, the more that flexible work arrangements are role-modelled as mainstream, the better an employer’s prospects for attracting and retaining a talented and diverse workforce going forward.