Carers: New law could extend flexible working rights

Caroline Roberts on the new law that could help those looking after sick relatives back into employment
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The Independent Online

From tomorrow the Work and Families Act will extend the right to ask for flexible working arrangements for carers of sick or disabled adults.

The law, which applies to those who look after relations living separately as well as unrelated adults at the same address, has the potential to benefit 2.6 million working carers. Currently one-in-five is forced out of employment by the strain of juggling their two roles, and the organisations that support them believe the new rule is an important step forward.

"When carers are faced with the choice between work and caring, they're not going to walk away from their relations, so it's always work that goes, says Emily Holzhausen, head of policy with the charity Carers UK. "The financial implications are huge and they can quickly end up in poverty."

But, although carers can ask for arrangements such home-working, annualised or compressed hours or flexi-time, employers aren't bound to say yes. Although they must give a request serious consideration, they have the right to turn it down if they can show there are good business reasons for doing so.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, applications are much more likely to succeed when they take into account the business needs of the organisation. This means the onus is on carers to present a strong case on how their workload could be managed more flexibly.

Coming up with a workable plan can be a challenge given the often unpredictable nature of caring for someone who is seriously ill. When Marguerite Celiz's disabled mother was diagnosed with cancer, she was faced with balancing her job at the Department for Constitutional Affairs with her increased caring responsibilities. Although her employer is sympathetic to carers and has flexible working policies in place, her role as head of a small team working in a specialised area with strict deadlines and very busy periods meant that some creative thinking was called for.

Her range of strategies included spending long days at the office when she could, taking work home and always ensuring colleagues knew when and how she could be contacted, as well as working some unusual hours. "Sometimes I was coming in at 5pm when everyone else was going home," she says. "It forces you to think about working efficiently. There are often things that don't need to be done immediately or things that can be delegated."

She believes that it's best to be honest with your employer about your situation and spend some time thinking things through and planning. "Try to make realistic suggestions and give concrete examples," she advises. "I was able to demonstrate I could keep the show on the road by working in different ways so my manager trusted me to get things done."

But employers can also do a lot to develop working practices that allow for flexibility. At Listawood, a Norfolk company that manufactures promotional products, family friendly policies including flexibility for carers have been part of the culture for the last 20 years. "It's really just an extension of the common sense arrangements you make to cover holidays and sickness," says co-founder Irene Allen. "One of the things we do is ensure employees are multi-skilled." It means that members of production teams can turn their hand to a variety of tasks, and office staff work closely in small "buddy groups" - strategies that make it easier for them to cover for absent colleagues, even at short notice. Allen points out that there are sound business reasons for accommodating the personal needs of employees.

"It has a huge impact on productivity and staff loyalty, and they act as ambassadors for the company," she says. "It's all about having an open mind and working on solutions together. Of course, there has to be give and take and you need to keep an eye on the effect it's having on the business."

To make an application for flexible working under the new rule you must have been working for your employer continuously for at least 26 weeks. The employer must reply within 28 days. If a request is refused, you have the right to appeal.

Two new advice booklets, one for employees, the other for employers, have been produced by the charities Working Families and Help the Hospices.

For more information go to www.timetocare.org.uk

Also see the 'Employees' guide to work and caring' and 'Caring for carers: the business case' available at www.carersuk.org.

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