All too often when the topic of supporting carers in the workplace is raised, the conversation quickly starts and ends with a focus on women and babies. Wider caring responsibilities of employees often don’t get a look in sadly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no denying investment in parental leave support is critical to improving children’s wellbeing and development, women’s health, attachment to the workforce and gender equality efforts. But we can’t pretend or ignore that our employees don’t have wider care-giving needs.
The reality is most of us will either need to care for someone, or be cared for by someone else, in our lifetime. With an aging workforce, aging population and 1 in 2 Australians living with a chronic health condition, care-giving is everyone’s business and workplaces need to prepare for caring needs of their workforce to steeply rise in the coming decades.
There are an estimated 2.8 million informal personal carers in Australia, with around 906,000 of those being primary carers. Projections suggest the national demand for carers will rise 23% by 2030. These carers play an essential role in society. Their role as a carer can come up suddenly and unexpectedly. The majority of carers say they didn’t have a choice about whether or not they would take on the role, according to research by Carers Australia.
If we were to replace the informal care work these carers undertake with formal market services, the cost would be a massive $77.9 billion, according to 2020 analysis – and that’s a figure that does not even include accommodation costs.
But often lost in this conversation is the significant impact to income and retirement savings that comes from being a carer – an impact that further contributes to the gender gap in superannuation and retirement savings.
A report by Evaluate, commissioned by Carers Australia, found that when a primary carer turns 67 their superannuation balance is reduced by around $17,700 for every year that they are a primary carer, while their lifetime income earnings is reduced by $39,600 for every such year.
Like other aspects of care, it is women who are more likely to do this work, making up 71.8 per cent of primary carers, according to Carers Australia. The number of carers is also increasing, growing 5.5 per cent from 2018 to 2020, due to changing demographics.
Meanwhile, carers often do this role alongside employment, with a 59.5 per cent workforce participation rate for carers, according to data from the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers.
So how can we shift the conversation at work to ensure that carers are better supported?
It starts by understanding who carers are, why support is so necessary and then understanding the broad range of needs they have.
Who are Carers?
Carers are defined by the Commonwealth Carer Recognition Act (2010) as being individuals who provide personal care, support and other assistance to another individual who needs it because that other individual has a disability, a medical condition (including terminal or chronic illness), a mental illness, or is frail and aged. This definition does not include those who provide care as part of paid work or voluntary work, or as part of requirements for a course of education or training.
Importantly, the Act notes that all carers should have the same rights, choices and opportunities as other Australians. In highlighting the role that children and young people have in being carers, it also declares that all children and young people should be supported to reach their full potential, and declares that “valuable social and economic contribution that carers make to society should be recognised and supported.”
Critically, the Act states that carers “should be supported to achieve greater economic wellbeing and sustainability and, where appropriate, should have opportunities to participate in employment and education.”
Being a carer and an employee
Carers can face challenges staying in the paid workforce, as well as challenges re-entering the paid workforce and managing their health and wellbeing while taking on both paid and unpaid roles.
So how can employers support these carers?
First, employers should consider the opportunity to tap into this workforce, where carers are available. Employers can also consider programs and mechanisms for carers to re-enter the workforce, especially when they are no longer classified as a carer – a point where they may have spent considerable time out of the paid workforce, but have learned significant skills regardless.
Employers must also take stock of the fact the majority of carers are women, and that offering further support to this segment will ultimately also support them in broadening their potential talent pool and meeting any gender-based targets they have.
As for those supporting carers already in the workforce, many employers will have policy frameworks in place to support carers, but such mechanisms may not be getting used to their full capacity, or may not be flexible enough to support the wide range of carer needs.
Also challenging for employers in addressing carers is the fact those with such responsibilities cross into all groups, ages, levels and job types across an organisation. In many cases, individuals also don’t identify themselves as carers. In some cases again, these carers may feel their responsibilities outside of paid work are invisible and lack recognition. It may be difficult to articulate their situation to colleagues or managers who typically look to clear-cut policies designed for caring for children. They may find the flexibility they need is more ad hoc or more challenging to plan out and predict, to that of parenting responsibilities. Carers can find themselves also dealing with the unknown: supporting people in ways they have little to no experience in managing previously, and venturing into administrative work for the first time.
Carer wellbeing is also a concern, with this cohort of Australians being two and a half times more likely to have low well-being than the average Australian adult (at 55.2 per cent to 25.4 per cent), according to a survey of 5992 carers aged 13 or older by Carers Australia. They are more likely to experience significant health problems, loneliness and financial hardship than the average Australian. The 2022 Carer Wellbeing Survey found that the risks of poor well-being and health increased somewhat between 2021 and 2022 for carers in the 25 to 44-year-old age group, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers.
In paid employment, the CWS identified further challenges carers face, including working fewer hours than they want, challenges with accessing flexibility (with 22.8 per cent reporting no flexibility), and just half of carers in the workforce saying they felt they could discuss their carer roles with their manager or employer at any time. Almost one in seven (15.8 per cent) say they have not disclosed their caring obligations to their supervisor, with younger carers more likely to not disclose this.
Clearly, there are opportunities for employers to identify the needs of carers across their workforces, and also to open more opportunities for team members to discuss and share such needs.
In some cases, employers can step in to support team members with paid services that can help carry some of the administrative and mental load of being a carer. Navigating the NDIS and the aged care system, for example, can be complex and require significant research and appointments. Employers can consider offering access to services that provide roadmaps and guides to such systems, and even care concierges who can support team members who might be going through the process for the first time.
There are opportunities for policymakers too, to not only offer more support mechanisms to carers for addressing things like isolation and time pressures, but also for addressing the cost carers can carry into retirement – such as through the introduction of a Superannuation Guarantee Contribution for the Carer Payment, as well as an increase in the Carer Allowance, as recommended by Carers Australia.
Overall, the 2022 Carer Wellbeing Survey found that those carers with access to support had fewer health and financial challenges and higher wellbeing – indicating the power of employers and policymakers taking up the opportunity to offer greater support.
Developing and promoting an inclusive carer’s policy is one of the first practical things an employer can do to be more carer-friendly.
Carers are critical to society. Their work and responsibilities can so often be invisible, happening behind closed doors. But we all have a responsibility to better support them.
By Emma Walsh, CEO and Founder, Family Friendly Workpalces
First published on Women’s Agenda