Working for the carers - what makes the difference?

Ruth Warden

15 / 5 / 2015 9am

When we come to work we all bring with us a whole host of baggage from our personal life, some of it is good, some of it isn't so good, some of it we can deal with and some of it can affect us at work. For those of us who have caring responsibilities this baggage can sometimes take its toll and often just gets too much.

So how can employers support carers in the workplace? According to a survey by Carers UK, nearly one in five carers were looking after family members with dementia and these carers were more likely (than other carers) to be combining this with full time employment. Until recently I was one of the one in five. 

For many years I cared for my mother, she had dementia. I also had two young children and I worked. Looking back now, I'm not entirely sure how I held it together, and to be honest there were times when I didn't. As the disease progressed the level of support she needed increased. I did everything, shopping, finance, coordinating care, taking her to appointments, arranging cleaning, repeat prescriptions, repairs to the house, correspondence, arranging hairdressers... 

The list is endless, and those of you who have been there will be familiar with it. This list is just the practical stuff, there was also the care for her, talking to her, bringing her over for tea, chatting, visiting - even this was tough as the disease affected her behaviour. 

As the main care giver I was often on the receiving end of her aggression and frustration. The emotional toll was immense and I think this had the biggest impact on me. I was busy caring for everyone else but not for me.

Where does work come into this? Without the support I got from work I know that the whole experience would have been much much worse. 

What exactly did work do?

First of all I had colleagues at work who asked how I was and listened. This wasn't anything excessive, we didn't spend hours pouring over the details of my latest visit to see mum or most recent battle with care coordination, they just asked and listened and understood. After one frustrating phone call which reduced me to tears I left the office to regain my composure, a colleague noticed, came out and just checked I was ok. I was, the tears were ones of frustration, but just knowing that they cared enough to notice felt good. 

I'll never forget one colleague, who knew things were not so good with my mum, didn't really know what to do so he made me a cup of tea and said, "thought you might need that". These weren't massive gestures, they were simple acts of kindness, acknowledging that someone needed a bit of help and offering it.

I also had supportive line managers who utilised the policies in place. In a recent survey Carers UK found that although 83 per cent of employees say that they have flexible working polices, only 48 per cent of carers report getting access to them. I did. I didn't always use them, but just knowing that there was some flexibility was a weight off my shoulders. During a particularly difficult time I was able to go out at lunchtime to visit mum to check she was ok. I only did this for a few days, but the reassurance it gave me and her was immense. If I hadn't had this flexibility, I'm not sure how productive I would have been during the day.

I worked all the time I was caring for mum and it wasn't easy. The demographics are clear, more people will be working carers and as employers we need to be able to support them in the workplace. Having colleagues who listened and a manager who understood and implemented the policies helped me. I was lucky, but should it really be down to luck? Perhaps we should look around us and consider what our colleagues might be going through and ask them if they are ok. As managers, we should know what policies there are to help, and importantly, put them into practice.

For more information on how you can support carers at work young carers, and supporting staff with dementia please see our webpages.

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