Carers put duty before careers

August 11, 2006

A survey of staff who look after elderly relatives has found that a quarter shun promotion. Letitia Hughes reports.

A quarter of higher education staff who care for elderly relatives shun promotion because they fear they will be unable to cope with the extra work on top of their caring duties, according to a survey by Staffordshire University.

Two thirds of the 238 Staffordshire staff who responded had caring responsibilities. Of those who had to care for elderly relatives, 25 per cent said they had "refused or did not apply" for promotion.

A further 17 per cent had considered resigning due to the pressure of work.

Most of the staff surveyed used annual leave to cover caring duties. Flexitime also often helped staff to cope.

Respondents said that paid leave would be the single most helpful change to working practices for those with family responsibilities.

The report was commissioned by Christine King, Staffordshire's vice-chancellor, who is sole carer for her two elderly parents. The university believes it is the first to survey staff who care for elderly and infirm relatives.

Paul Kingston and Halina Kalaga, the report's authors, warn that employers must make more of an effort to accommodate staff with caring duties, given that the numbers of people caring for parents or relatives is sure to rise as the population ages.

The report found that employees were often unaware of university policies relevant to their caring situation or of provisions available to them.

After consulting focus groups, the authors suggested issuing employee information packs to help address such problems.

The report concludes: "Organisations need to address the additional care responsibilities that a proportion of their workforce is involved with."

Madeleine Starr, carers and employment project manager at Carers UK, said:

"It is disappointing that people in a highly skilled sector may be working below their potential because of their caring responsibilities.

"You can plan for flexible employment before having a child, but caring for the elderly is far more unpredictable. The big difference then is that such people do not recognise themselves as carers."

A Staffordshire spokesperson said: "The findings will inevitably apply to all higher education institutions and other large-scale organisations. The university now wants to further investigate the work options available to those with caring responsibilities with the aim of assisting employees in their dual roles."

According to the University and College Union website, the "work-life balance: guidance for higher education institutions 2003" recommend flexible working for staff with caring duties.

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the UCU, said: "Good institutions are the ones that take a proactive and sensible approach to the work-life balance of their staff."

A spokesperson from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association said that institutions were supportive towards staff with caring duties and that many had flexible working policies that went beyond the statutory minimum.

But provisions such as flexible working patterns are at the discretion of the employer.

This is due to change in April next year when the new Work and Families Act 2006, which gained Royal Assent last month, will require employers to give the right to request flexible working, which is available currently to parents, to people with other caring responsibilities.

It is estimated there are 5.7 million carers in Britain, and 1.7 million devote at least 20 hours a week to caring.

Of the total, 49 per cent are in full or part-time employment and half care for someone over the age of 75.


Sue Howlett, an information, protection and security manager at Staffordshire University, juggles a successful career with caring for her elderly parents.

She has been look after them for ten years and working at the university for 12 years. She admits that this has been difficult in the past.

"I'm an only child and was working five days a week and caring for my parents at the weekend. To live my own life and do a job as well was quite demanding. I wasn't consciously aware that it was affecting my career. It was just a fact of life."

She requested a flexible working policy that allowed her to condense her work so she was doing the same hours but in four days.

Ms Howlett said: "It gave me that extra day to do normal things such as shopping and things that needed to be done around the house. It also gave me a bit of time at the weekends to regroup and to have time for some rest and relaxation."

Ms Howlett was promoted two years ago and is now positive about combining her career progression with being a carer.

"You have to try to balance all these things out. We're monitoring it so that I don't get overburdened," she said.

Ms Howlett said it was important to give more recognition to the work that carers do for the elderly, as is the case with caring for children.

"You run the risk of losing some good employees if you don't give them the support," she said.

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