Over 50% of carers juggle work and family obligations

‘People are often reluctant to talk about this at work in case it goes against them in some way’

More than half of all carers in Ireland juggle work and looking after a family member. That's the equivalent of about 280,000 employees or approximately 12 per cent of the working population. But in most cases their employers know nothing about it.

"There is a largely silent group of people who are struggling to manage paid work and caring for someone at home," says Catherine Cox, head of communications and policy at Family Carers Ireland. "It's something that affects all levels in an organisation, from senior management to the most junior employee.

“At the moment, one in 10 people have a caring role outside work. By 2030, it will be one in five. People are often reluctant to talk about this at work in case it goes against them in some way.”

Family Carers Ireland represents about 500,000 people who look after older folk, children with special needs and those who are fragile or unwell and in need of constant support. The association is on a mission to open employers’ eyes to the demands being a carer puts on employees.

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It also wants to raise awareness of how even small tweaks in workplace practices can help.

“Many employers mean well but never get around to doing anything about assisting employees who are also carers,” Cox says. “So, to make it easy for them we’ve prepared the Caring Employers programme and it’s available right now. We’re here to walk them through it and to manage elements of it for them. For example, the employee survey where we try to get a sense of the scale of caring responsibilities within an organisation and what people need to make life easier.”

The association launched the programme just before Covid-19 and had to bring as much of it as possible online very quickly.

“In many ways it’s actually worked out better,” Cox says. “Certain elements, such as counselling for employees, can be easily done remotely at a time that suits them. This also avoids adding to the pressure by asking someone to travel to a session.”

Irish Life was the first employer to sign up and there are roughly 20 more either in the process or interested in participating.

Based on the UK experience, however, the association may face an uphill battle. The programme, which was established there 12 years ago, still has only about 250 participating organisations. The Irish initiative is aimed at companies with 15 employees and upwards and the cost to the employer is between €5,000 and €10,000 depending on size.

Multinational healthcare company Roche Ireland, which employs 150 people, is a recent recruit to the initiative.

"Employee welfare is a core pillar for us and we want to make sure our employees have the space they need to meet family obligations while pursuing personal and professional development," says Carole Shaw, HR business partner and wellbeing lead at the company. "We always try to go beyond what's generally expected of employers and to some extent introducing the programme is futureproofing us against what's coming in terms of the expected rise in caring responsibilities.

“We want employees to know that it is okay to have the caring conversation with their line manager and that, as a company, we have an open and honest conversation around people’s needs as they are individual and different.”

Cox believes the timing of the Caring Employers initiative is timely as the labour market tightens and employee retention starts to re-emerge as an issue.

“By offering greater flexibility and support, employers could be saving themselves an estimated €615 million a year in ‘caring disruptions’,” Cox says. “Being able to avail of something like flexitime can be a lifeline for a carer and can help with issues such as absenteeism if an employee has to bring someone to a medical appointment for example.

“Without support, people may end up leaving their job and then the organisation faces the cost of replacing them financially and in terms of lost experience.”

Talent shortages

In June of this year, Manpower released its third-quarter employment outlook which showed that 75 per cent of employers were struggling to find the talent they needed.

"Despite growing confidence as the economy reopens, employers are facing dire talent shortages when looking for new staff," says John Galvin, managing director of Manpower Group Ireland.

“As the vaccination programme continues to gather pace, employers are finally confident they can plan for the future without further restrictions impacting their business plans. At the same time, organisations in Ireland are facing some of the most challenging hiring conditions in years.

“There’s a perception that, due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, employers will have access to a greater pool of talent than before. Yet what we’re seeing from clients is that many skillsets are increasingly difficult to find, with highly skilled workers in Ireland content to remain in their current roles rather than look for new opportunities; many with increased loyalty to their employer who saw them through the pandemic.”

According to the Manpower report, 21 per cent of employers were planning new hires between June and September while over 70 per cent expect current employment levels at their organisation to remain unchanged.

Interestingly enough, jobs in IT and data, which normally top the polls for most in-demand roles, came in only third behind operations/logistics and manufacturing/production reflecting the dual challenges of the pandemic and the continuing fallout from Brexit.