Homeworking: Helping employees to balance work and caring commitments

Author: Graham Brown

Lockdown has brought many challenges for employers and employees alike - not least those who have had to juggle their day-to-day work with home schooling a child or caring for another dependant. Graham Brown takes a look at ways in which employers can help support working carers and parents.

Several studies have found that the third national lockdown, implemented on 6 January 2021, is having a greater negative impact on people's mental wellbeing than either the first or second national lockdown. An Ipsos MORI survey from January 2021, for example, found that the percentage of Britons "finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day because of the virus" had reached 60% - the highest rate since the pandemic began in early 2020.

One major reason for this, of course, is the fact that the longer the pandemic has gone on, the more people have been personally affected by it - either by becoming infected themselves or through knowing someone who has fallen ill or died from the virus. But aside from these direct effects, people have also struggled with the restrictions that the lockdowns have put on their lives - particularly those who need to care for dependants or home school their children while working.

The COVID-19 lockdown has created a huge number of unpaid carers across the UK - workers who have a full- or part-time job but who are now also having to care for older, disabled or seriously ill family members or friends.

Research by the charity Carers UK estimates that before last year one in seven employees had some form of caring responsibilities outside their main job, but that the impact of the pandemic has created an additional 2.8 million working carers, with many employers estimating that about one in four or one in five of their staff are now having to provide unpaid care on top of their day job. A second Carers UK study shows that this has had a major impact on the careers and working lives of these individuals, with 11% of working carers having to reduce their hours to be able to balance work and care and 9% having to give up work altogether.

On top of this, until recently, millions of working parents were having to home school their children while the UK's schools remain closed. Data from the Office for National Statistics from January 2021 reveals that 60% of working parents were personally home schooling their children and 47% believed that home schooling negatively affected their job. The gradual re-opening of the UK's schools through March will ease the burden on the vast majority of this group - but the issue will not disappear. Families who are required to shield or self-isolate may have to continue with home schooling for some time to come, while individual schools will also be subject to further closures in the event of pupils testing positive for COVID-19.

Given the strains that working carers and working parents are currently experiencing, it is incumbent on employers to find ways to support these groups.

Reviewing employee workloads and working hours

With working parents and carers having to spend large parts of their day looking after their children and/or other dependants, it is unrealistic for employers to expect them to maintain their normal daily workloads. As a result, managers may need to revisit an employee's performance objectives to make sure that they are still realistic and achievable.

Employers may also need to negotiate a temporary reduction in working hours for employees to free up more time for caring responsibilities. High street retailer Superdrug, for example, has been open to reviewing working time arrangements with its employees during lockdown. "We have worked closely with all our employees across the business to ensure everyone's workload is manageable in these new circumstances," says Jo Mackie, customer and people director. "Like other businesses across the country, we have embraced the fact that many families are at home too, and they also need time for activities such as home schooling. We are aware that the usual working patterns and the 9 to 5 don't apply to everyone currently, and we're comfortable letting our teams find ways of working that suit them, their families, and the business. In our stores and distribution centres, we have asked managers to have different flexible working conversations with those parents still working, as we know that their usual hours of work might have had to flex and change and we are doing what we can to accommodate this."

According to Helen Dallimore, facilitator at workplace behaviour consultancy Byrne Dean, the key to reviewing individual workloads is to be as open and understanding as possible to people's particular situations - and to make sure that there is no stigma attached to asking for help. "It's important to acknowledge that everyone's circumstances are different and there is no one size fits all solution that will fix their problems," she says. "Suggesting there is can sometimes be more detrimental than helpful. It is also important to acknowledge the reality that people are not finding it hard because they are failing or doing something wrong, but because the pressures have been too much. It is important to remind people that the priority is to get through this both physically and mentally well and that caregivers need to put on their oxygen masks first so they can support those around them. Consciously lowering expectations, maintaining self-care, and not comparing to others - as well as building in 1:1 time to connect with friends, colleagues or managers - can really help."

Using the Government's furlough scheme

Some working carers and parents have used the Government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) to voluntarily request to be put on furlough. The attraction of this is clear - it ensures that they are paid at least 80% of their basic salary while giving them time to dedicate to their caring responsibilities. The TUC has even called for the Government to create a legal right for parents and those with caring responsibilities, as well as those who cannot work because they are required to shield, to be able to access the CJRS if their employer is unable to provide the flexibility they need to balance their working and caring responsibilities.

However, furlough arrangements are not without their drawbacks and employers should be aware of the potential damage that being away from the workforce for an extended period of time can cause to employees' mental wellbeing. Dr. Louise Thomson, assistant professor in occupational psychology at the University of Nottingham, points out that being on furlough can bring a loss of meaningful activity, self-identity, social interaction and can also raise concerns about job and financial security. She suggests that employers should maintain engagement with their furloughed employees through active and open communication, such as sharing updates and news on the business and signposting to internal and external sources of support. She also recommends supporting and promoting interaction between furloughed colleagues by setting up virtual non-work activities to keep people in touch.

Providing additional time off

Legislation in the UK provides several avenues for employees with caring commitments to take time off. For example, the right to time off for dependants allows employees to take "reasonable" time off work to deal with emergencies involving their children or other dependants, although this leave does not have to be paid.

Working parents with at least one year's service are also entitled to a total of 18 weeks' parental leave for each child, up to their 18th birthday. This leave must be taken in whole week blocks and eligible employees are legally only entitled to take four weeks per child in any single year. However, while both of these options could be useful in an emergency, neither provides enough leave to adequately cover the long-term responsibilities of working carers and parents during the current lockdown. The other major drawback for employees is that these options are unpaid.

To compensate, some employers have implemented additional leave arrangements, specifically designed to help support working parents and carers at this time. For example, several employers have given staff some extra days of paid annual leave this year in recognition of the burden that they have been under and to make sure that they have enough time to look after themselves and their dependants. One global software company granted its employees three additional, fully-paid "wellbeing days" between January and June last year - but it stipulated that they had to be taken on their own and not tagged on to other annual leave or bank holidays, to encourage people to take more regular breaks from work. And from the start of 2021, financial services company Zurich UK is offering two weeks' paid leave for parents who face childcare emergencies following the closure of schools, or to any other employee with caring commitments - these days can be taken individually, or consecutively.

However, for employees with extensive caring responsibilities, employers should be open to the idea of granting extended periods of unpaid leave - or perhaps even a sabbatical - to allow people to focus fully on their concerns at home before returning to work at a later date. In the US, for example, financial services firm Citigroup is giving employees the chance to take a 12-week sabbatical at 25% of pay. To qualify for the scheme, employees must have five years' service with the company - and they will be limited to taking a total of two sabbaticals over their career with the firm.

Innovative ideas for supporting working parents

Reviewing individual workloads and providing additional time off can prove invaluable for employees who are trying to juggle work with caring responsibilities or home schooling. However, they are not the only ways in which employers can help support these groups and some organisations have come up with more creative ways of helping working parents, in particular. At DHL Supply Chain, for example, the internal communications team developed a series of family activity packs filled with activities for children to complete, which it distributed during lockdown to all of its employees who were having to home school their children.

In the US, Canada and Ireland, meanwhile, financial services firm Sun Life partnered with Boston Children's Museum to launch "Explore It", a virtual summer camp full of various hands-on activities for children aged from four to ten on six different themes. At its launch, Dan Fishbein, president of Sun Life US, said: "We understand that keeping young children occupied at home has been challenging for our employees during the pandemic, so we want to help by providing something that will entertain and engage kids and the whole family."

Building trust and understanding is key

Ultimately, not every employer will be able to reduce their employees' working hours, place staff on furlough, provide additional time off or source activities for their workers' families. But every employer should do all they can to provide flexibility for working parents and carers at this time. "Good, open and honest communication between leaders and colleagues about our circumstances through the whole employment relationship is essential to build trust, respect and find flexible solutions that can help manage challenges," says Helen Dallimore at Byrne Dean. "Empowering people to speak up, to ask for support and creating the environment where they feel safe to do so and know they are listened to is essential right now but will continue to remain so into the future."