Working carers: an overlooked group in your DEI and wellbeing strategy

By guest contributor: Mary Breheny, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington

The Australian Carer Wellbeing Survey 2022 unveiled some eye-opening facts: Only 69% of carers are active in the labour force, and many are struggling to work as much as they’d like. Shockingly, less than half feel comfortable discussing their caregiving responsibilities with their managers.

And here’s the concerning part – 55.2% of carers report distressingly low levels of wellbeing.

With critical staffing shortages across various sectors, it’s crucial to retain these invaluable workers.

Juggling work and caring responsibilities can be challenging. To ascertain what type of support this sector of the workforce needed, Mary Breheny, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Victoria University (NZ) and research colleagues conducted two studies:

Study one involved interviewing eleven people over 55 who worked a minimum of 20 hours per week and were caring for a family member. Six were caring for adult children with disabilities and five for mothers or mothers in law. The interviewees were ten women and one man and were split between self-employed and employee. This study is ongoing with follow up interviews every six months for the next two years.

The initial findings found the type of support they needed most was:

Supportive co workers – co-worker and manager support was crucial. One interviewee described how knowing her team were supportive allowed her to regularly contact her daughter from work: “I could chat to her, and the people around didn’t mind because they understood, they were kind people.”

Informal support – was also important allowing to carers to openly discuss their responsibilities with others and knowing colleagues would respond positively and flexibly to situations as they arose. Working carers appreciated workplaces and colleagues that acknowledged that family came first.

Study two focused on the experience of support for working carers before and during COVID-19 lockdown. Ten people caring for a family member or friend aged 65 were interviewed with six working full time and four were working part time. The results indicated they needed:

Flexibility and reciprocity – participants described their teamwork culture and informal networks as the main source of support that made them feel like a vital part of a supportive team. The interviewees were keen to demonstrate a strong work ethic and maximise their availability when possible so they could request flexibility when needed.

Supportive management – working carers were particularly grateful when their managers supported them and one participant stated “…my boss, her Dad was in a rest home and he died recently…So it would be 100 percent fine if I needed to shoot out and do something, I would totally have the ability to do that.”

Separating work and care – some working carers reported that their manager had no awareness of their situation and that was perceived as lack of interest. For others it was part of a wider workplace culture promoting a clear delineation between work and personal life.

Role modelling combining work and care

In the studies they also talked to carers who were managers and they had concerns around juggling paid work and care and that they may not be setting a good example for employees. One participant saw her own behaviour as setting a standard or model for the rest of the staff to follow, and felt leaving work unexpectedly was not the right example to set.

This highlighted that there were still traditional views around the right type of employee behaviour (regular work hours, total focus on work) and that irregular hours might encourage flexibility, which was viewed as sending the wrong message.

Alternatively, managers could see have viewed this as an opportunity to prompt conversations around flexible working arrangements and a commitment to both paid work and caring.

Starting conversations around work and care

The studies found some employees were concerned about raising care responsibilities with their managers and that it might undermine their perceived commitment to their work or their career advancement.

A first step to addressing these issues is to start conversations about care in the workplace. Managers who take the lead in this type of communication demonstrate commitment to their employees and concern about their lives outside of working hours. This can build a foundation for arrangements that support all members of the team.

These conversations should be built on positive recognition that providing care is a valuable contribution to society and a likely outcome for part of most people’s working life. The wisdom, experience and work ethic that aged workers offer in light of skills shortages and ongoing restrictions around immigration means modelling flexible and trust in the workplace will keep them working longer which is good for your business.

Adapted from an article from Mary Breheny and Rachel Harris

For more insights into caring for unpaid working carers, don’t miss our recent chat with Mary Breheny, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Victoria University (NZ) and Jacinthe Brosseau, Project Coordinator, Carers NSW as part of our exclusive The Hub Q&A Blockbuster here.

Not a member of The Hub? No problem! Find out more about how to join Australasia’s first knowledge centre for workplace wellness here.

Mary Breheny, Associate Professor of Health Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington

Mary’s current research focuses on the experiences of combining paid work with informal care. She has completed projects with carers of older people, with people caring for family members with dementia, and with younger carers trying to negotiate multiple demands of paid work, education and care. In all these projects, Mary focuses on the social and organisational context which makes combining care and work fraught. Addressing these tensions has the potential to support carers to continue to do work they value and care for people they care about.

Email: mary.breheny@vuw.ac.nz