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I don’t remember exactly when the thought struck me, but at some point this year, I realized that employers would be stunningly surprised if they audited their staff to see how many were simultaneously working and taking care of aging relatives.
Almost overnight, it seemed like every other person I knew in their forties or fifties was struggling to balance caregiving responsibilities with a demanding job.
There was a man who faced criticism from his boss for a work issue while frantically organizing care for his mother, who had fallen while he was abroad.
There was a woman who fulfilled her commitment to speak at an online conference while sitting on the floor in a makeshift workspace as her father-in-law was dying upstairs.
And there were numerous couples, some with young children, whose weekends and holidays had become a chaotic cycle of trips to take care of their aging parents.
What struck me was not the fact that they were providing care. As people live longer, they naturally require assistance from their loved ones. Researchers estimate that around 600 people in the UK give up paid work each day to provide care, with women being the majority.
By the age of 46, women have a 50:50 chance of becoming caregivers, while men face the same odds by the age of 57. Official figures indicate that there are at least 5.7 million unpaid carers in the UK.
However, what was most noteworthy about the experiences of my friends was the additional stress caused by keeping their caregiving responsibilities a secret.
They frequently used vacation time for caregiving, which was far from the restful holiday they desperately needed.
Most of them didn’t disclose their situation to their managers out of fear of career setbacks or skepticism about their manager’s willingness to help.
“Companies should really have a better understanding of this,” said one man who had taken several days off this year to care for his elderly mother after she fell, had a car accident, and underwent a day-long battery of dementia tests at the hospital.
“I’m going to end up completely exhausted,” he added. “Managers should be aware of what their employees are going through.”
Indeed, managers should be aware. However, the lack of focus on caregiving time off can be attributed to the fact that employers are often not legally obligated to provide it, unlike other forms of family leave.
Parental leave has long been available in many countries, as has leave for childbirth or adoption. A few countries, such as Japan, even provide additional days off specifically for caregiving.
In the UK, it wasn’t until this year that the Carers Leave Act was passed, allowing workers to take one week of unpaid leave per year to care for a relative or dependent. While one week may not be sufficient for the caregivers I know, this new law is still a significant step forward.
“It will make this type of care much more visible,” says Emily Holzhausen, policy director at the Carers UK charity. This increased visibility should make it easier for individuals to request and arrange for carer leave.
It would be even better if more employers followed the example of companies like Centrica, a UK energy group. For over a decade, Centrica has offered 10 days of paid carer leave. In 2019, they introduced an additional 10 days of leave that can be taken in conjunction with matched annual leave. For example, if two days off are needed, one would be considered carer leave and the other would be annual leave.
Some may argue that this policy is excessively costly and susceptible to misuse. However, Centrica reports that their employees only took an average of 3.4 days of matched leave per year before the pandemic. They also estimate that the policy saves them £1.8 million per year by reducing unplanned absences and underperformance, and an additional £1.3 million by retaining employees who might have otherwise left.
Not every employer is as large as Centrica, but their compelling business case for more generous carer leave should encourage other companies to follow suit. From a humanitarian standpoint, the need for adequate carer leave is undeniable and continues to grow.
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