At some point in our lives, we could be caring for an elderly relative, a sick partner or another family member in need of help. We are all human and want to do what we can for those we love. But the world of work is just not set up for it.
Carers UK recently released a report predicting that two-thirds of adults will become an unpaid carer in their life. It suggested that half of all women would be a carer by the age of 46. These are people still in the prime of life and in the thick of the workforce.
When I interviewed women for my report Women at Work: Designing a Company Fit for the Future, I heard touching stories from those who were balancing caring with busy jobs and those who had struggled to return to the workplace after caring for a period.
This made me wonder why we have working lives that just do not work for us. And I started to think conversely, what if we put caring first and made work fit around that? This would recognise all of the unpaid responsibilities we shouldered outside our paid work and celebrate them, rather than having to squeeze them into gaps in our day.
Women have won concessions for maternity leave and pay as well as some flexibility for looking after children. According to my interviewees, that could still do with much improvement. However, we have barely started to think about fitting in our caring roles in later life.
Carers UK, the charity that represents caring, has called for employers to offer 5-10 days of paid caring leave. That would be a help but, for me, it wouldn’t go far enough.
My idea is that we all have a carer’s passport with a certain amount of paid leave in it – like maternity leave. We could take this passport with us when we changed jobs so that leave not taken could be used at a different time. This would add flexibility to the workplace and give those unpaid carers a much needed boost.
We are all living longer and we never know when we might have to step in and help an older person. It can happen suddenly, as one of my interviewees found out when her mother, father-in-law and mother-in-law were all in crisis at the same time.
Margaret Heffernan, who has run five companies of her own and now lectures on management at Bath University, points out that work needs to recognise the wider needs of society in this way. “We are a society, not a machine. People need and desire to care for others. If we don’t look after each other, we are not a society.”
This is important to the business community. “Without a flourishing and stable society, there is no business success, so businesses need to recognise these caring needs.”
Carer’s passports could be funded by government. They would after all, be saving huge amounts of money for the social care budget, not to speak of the NHS. Not everyone, of course, would be able to care or want to do it, so we would have to retain a safety net. But many people hate to see their relatives institutionalised and would like to help
if they could.
If we put care on the same basis as maternity leave – in fact, a carer’s passport could be extended and used for childcare as well – we would start to introduce some fairness for older carers.
We have gone a long way in helping young parents, but let’s do the same for those caring for their parents. For me, this is part of a move towards a feminine corporation that runs a less ego-driven, more egalitarian workplace that would function better for everyone, not just women.
Deborah Hargreaves is former business editor of the Guardian and a founder and director of the High Pay Centre