One in nine of your employees are caring for somebody other than their children but this remains an area which often employers are relatively ignorant of and where the law is relatively weak as regards protecting those carers. Often the issue may be masked by employees using their annual leave and reporting sickness rather than telling their employer what is really going on. Looking at the demographic situation with an increasing number of employees caring not only for their own children but for elderly parents, those employers who really get a handle on this issue and start offering greater flexibility to staff are likely to be the ones who are rewarded with greater staff loyalty and productivity.
In terms of the law, all staff are now able to ask for a flexible working variation to their contract once they get to 26 weeks’ service. However, that is often a blunt tool for somebody who may want a short-term change rather than a long-term variation.
Those with dependents where there is an immediate crisis are entitled to take unpaid leave to deal with that crisis and make alternative care arrangements – the Dependent Leave Provisions. Again, those provisions aren’t particularly helpful as they are designed merely to deal with the immediate crisis rather than a more long-term position.
The key area which employers are often ignorant of is associative discrimination under the Equality Act and the need to take care that you are not subjecting those who care, perhaps, for a disabled person, less favourably when it comes to flexibility and other treatment compared, for example, to parents. The key case on this area involved a legal secretary with a disabled child who needed to take some time off work to attend hospital appointments with him. She found her employers to be inflexible and that she was less likely to be granted permission to take time off work compared to other parents – whilst the disability is not your employee’s, you could be subjecting them to discrimination by association with that disabled person. However, the law does not go as far as requiring the employer to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of that disabled person. It is merely that you are bound not to subject the parent or carer to less favourable treatment.
The biggest thing that carers report their line managers can do to help them is to be supportive, understanding and to give them flexibility. For some organisations this might be allowing greater working from home, for others it is the option to buy greater holidays as part of a salary sacrifice scheme, it might be the use of employee assistance programmes to provide counselling, but the most important thing is feeling that the employer is not ignoring this as an issue.