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It will take more than unpaid leave to support working carers

With the Carer’s Leave Act 2023 receiving Royal Assent, working carers will soon be entitled to one week’s unpaid leave per year for caring responsibilities. Employees can take this leave with some flexibility, using bits of their entitlement through the year when they need to, in increments of full or half days. These are intended to be used for ‘foreseen’ caring responsibilities – in other words, pre-planned and subject to an employer’s approval.

Business Disability Forum does not believe this new Act goes far enough to support the many people balancing jobs with caring responsibilities. Evidence, including our own findings, suggests working carers today need more than a week’s unpaid leave, as well as more flexibility than the Act provides.

It is true that carers needed a right to time off enshrined in law. There were 5.8 million working carers in the UK by 2021, but they had no legal right to take time off work for caring responsibilities before the Bill. At the same time, health and social care services have long-standing problems with resources, staffing and unmet need, meaning many working carers have limited support available to them. Unfortunately, the new Act is a bit ‘out of step’ with what many employers already provide, which is often paid time off in excess of the new requirement. As such, enshrining an unpaid, as opposed to paid, entitlement feels like ‘a step back.’

The reality for working carers was summed up by what a carer told us when we sought views on the earlier version of this entitlement proposed in 2020: “You feel you are not doing all you should be at work,” they said, “and you feel you are not doing everything you should be for the person you are caring for.” Others similarly spoke of “guilt”, “pressure” and “struggle”. These comments hint at an urgent need for support which a week of unpaid leave will not meet.

Working carers we spoke to certainly felt this way. One called the measure proposed in 2020 (for five days’ unpaid leave, similar to the week’s entitlement which is now law) “a slap in the face.” Employers were also taken aback by the scant nature of the proposals. Again, many already offered their employees more time off for caring responsibilities than the proposed minimum, and as paid leave too. This is good, of course, but it underlines how the Carer’s Leave Act 2023 falls short of what working carers and employers alike feel is necessary.

There are also questions for how carer’s leave works in reality. Firstly, can working carers reasonably be expected to plan their time off for caring responsibilities in advance? The reality is that many responsibilities – such as slots for medical appointments – cannot be planned this way. What happens when working carers need to take shorter periods than half a day as carer’s leave, which is the smallest increment defined by the Act? We’d hope that a working carer would not have to use a half day of their entitlement to take only an hour off for caring responsibilities, for example. And, finally, will a week of unpaid leave a year address the other challenges of being a working carer – the “guilt”, “pressure” and “struggle” cited before?

Every organisation and working carers network we spoke to when the Government consulted on carer’s leave proposals said that leave wasn’t the only issue for working carers. Just as important were factors like support from managers, availability of information, and peer support.

In sum, the Carer’s Leave Act 2023 provides a bare minimum requirement and in this way is welcome. But supporting working carers requires much more than this.

For the time being, employers need to consider what else they can do to support working carers. Our key recommendations are:

Offer paid carer’s leave which can be taken flexibly. Many employers see this as an investment in staff wellbeing rather than a cost. Allowing working carers to take paid time off flexibly makes them better able to balance it with work.

Provide a supportive environment. Line managers should be equipped to properly support staff who have care responsibilities, through training, information, and robust policies.

Help carers find the information they need. Many carers struggle to access information about available services and support. Employers can help either by allowing carers time to research, in addition to carer’s leave, or providing resources themselves for employees.

Provide a forum. Peer support and workplace networks are a hugely valuable way to ensure working carers feel supported, offering a space to share experiences and guidance.

Understand that many with caring responsibilities will not think of themselves as “carers”. Many employees will need time off to support someone who depends on them, but may not view this a care or view themselves as a carer. Employers should still support these employees with paid leave, flexibility, and information. In other words, someone may need “carer’s leave” regardless of whether they think of themselves as a carer.

You can find out more about supporting working carers and our views on carer’s leave on the Policy Hub. 

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