Helen Lamprell, General Counsel & External Affairs Director, Vodafone UK, argues that flexible working, enhanced parental leave policies and access to technology are key to retaining carers in the workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected us all, but some groups more than others. We all know about the challenges faced by those working in our hospitals, care homes and schools, but the plight of unpaid carers is perhaps less well known.
So a new Vodafone UK report by WPI Strategy published today – Lost Connections: Supporting carers in the workplace in 2021 and beyond – seeks to highlight the challenges they face and what more we – businesses, Government and society – should be doing to support them.
More often than not, unpaid carers, defined as ‘those helping another person, usually a relative or friend, in their day-to-day life’ are women. And our research shows that the pandemic has piled even more pressure on them as they try to juggle work and caring responsibilities.
Women are more than twice as likely as men to leave their jobs due to unpaid caring responsibilities. And of the 77% of respondents who reported sharing caring responsibilities, women were more than twice as likely to do the larger share of caring.
As Jess Phillips MP, Co-Chair of the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group, says: “As the majority of carers are women, we cannot deny this is a gendered issue. Unless action is taken by both Government and businesses, we risk losing more women from the workforce which will only heighten existing gender inequalities.”
Those inequalities were highlighted in a Vodafone-supported Social Market Foundation report – Back on Track: Making the most of parents’ working lives – which showed that mothers already face a long-term employment penalty. Ten years after they have their first child, they still earn much less per hour and work shorter weeks than fathers. And only a fraction of mothers who say they intend to return to work after having a child actually do so.
Even before the pandemic struck, an estimated 6,000 new people were taking on unpaid caring responsibilities every day, and as many as three in 10 workers said they would be forced to leave their current jobs if they had to take on greater caring responsibilities.
COVID has only exacerbated the situation, with around 2.8 million workers taking on additional caring responsibilities. This number would be even higher if we included those parents who’ve been trying to cope with home schooling on top of work.
And our polling found that 39% of people who work full time saw their caring responsibilities increase due to COVID-19 in 2020.
Many are at breaking point. A mass exodus of carers from the UK workforce would not only risk the loss of years of expertise and experience, but could also have a detrimental impact on their lives – and potentially those they care for.
So what should we be doing to help?
We think more enlightened parental leave policies should play a big part in supporting carers and helping to redress gender inequality.
We’re really proud that Vodafone’s new Global Parental Leave Policy comes into force today offering all employees – regardless of gender, sexual orientation or length of service – 16 weeks of fully paid parental leave.
And it’s great to receive the support of Baroness Berridge, Minister for Womean, who says our policy “will help to make caring responsibilities equal, enabling women to continue their careers.”
Creating an environment where all parents have the opportunity to spend more time with their children not only reduces concerns around the impact of parental leave on the finances and careers of new parents, but helps to challenge the idea that caring is a ‘woman’s job’.
This in turn helps to reduce the stigma around taking time off for caring responsibilities for all employees, but will particularly help male carers who may otherwise feel unrecognised or unsupported.
The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that our technology is now robust enough to support people working effectively from home, so the fact that more than a third of carers we polled said they would like the option to work from home occasionally, shouldn’t worry businesses.
Employers need to accept the benefits of flexible working and integrate it into their operations in a way that best suits them and their workforce. How they do this is up to them, but a more flexible approach to work locations and hours doesn’t have to impact productivity – indeed, it can even improve it.
Commenting on our research, Baroness Berridge said: “Everyone can benefit from flexible working, but the research shows that for women it can be especially important. Flexible working and inclusive care policies can be a vital tool to achieve workplace equality.”
At Vodafone, for example, our Future Ready model will accommodate more remote working, but also give our colleagues the best of both worlds: the benefits of flexible working, with its reduced commuting time and costs, and the benefits of physical human interaction when needed to help teams be more creative, collaborative and social.
We also hope that this model will help us attract more people with different perspectives, cultures and skills and enable us to access a wider geographical pool of talent, supporting the business goal to become an even more diverse employer.
It comes as no surprise to discover than nearly all respondents in our survey said it would be harder to balance work and caring responsibilities without access to technology. Flexible working relies on good connectivity.
And other technologies can also make a big difference. Wearable devices and remote monitoring systems, for example, can provide peace of mind for carers and independence for those being cared for. Embracing these technologies could have a profound impact on those who need help the most.
Supportive HR policies and flexible working are important, but it is digital connectivity and devices that will enable carers to be fulfilled in both their work and caring responsibilities.
Carers are a vitally important part of our society and economy and we all need to do more to cherish support them.
Our report shows how we can do that.
For the full press release click here.
Follow @VodafoneUKNews on Twitter.