David Grayson says smart employers understand the business case for helping the growing number of older employees with caring responsibilities

In May, a small group of business leaders, led by Andy Briggs, CEO of Aviva UK Life and the UK government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, committed publicly to a series of practical measures to help older workers to stay in or to get back into the workforce.

Briggs and other vanguard employers, including Atos, Barclays, The Co-operative Group, Home Instead Senior Care, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), Mercer, and Walgreens Boots Alliance, are calling on other UK employers to join them in publicly committing to employ 12% more older workers by 2022, and to publishing their workforce data by age.

Aviva has recognised that older workers can plug critical skills gaps. The trends of increasing life expectancy and less generous pension provision make “longer, fuller working lives” a necessity for many people. Attracting and retaining older workers has become simultaneously part of the diversity and inclusion agenda and also part of strategies to build a more agile workforce.

It is encouraging that in promoting the merits of attracting and retaining older workers, Aviva and their co-campaigners have recognised that one crucial element will be offering flexible working and other support to workers who need to juggle a job and caring for a loved one.

Many older workers will be amongst the 3 million Britons who combine working and caring. The “young old” may be looking after older parents or other elderly relatives, or their partners. Some older workers may still be looking after a grown-up disabled son or daughter or sibling. Some will be “sandwich carers”, simultaneously caring for both older and younger relatives. A small but growing number are “club sandwich carers”, looking after relatives across three generations at the same time.

B&Q is renowned for employing older workers (Credit: B&Q)

The average British workforce will have one in nine employees juggling a job and caring. In Canada it can be as many as 1:3. Sometimes, caring can be a short episodic burst, perhaps when a loved one needs help to recover after an operation or is suffering from severe depression. Other voluntary carers may be caring long-term and the amount of their caring progressively increases. Many working carers simply give up on juggling work, caring, and personal life, and quit their jobs.

This can be bad for them (greater financial pressures, greater social isolation, poor physical and mental health); bad for their employers (loss of institutional memory, productivity and of experienced and talented staff); and bad for society in the long run as employees with caring responsibilities who feel forced to quit their jobs will have lower pensions and fewer savings to fall back on in later life and will become more dependent on the state.

Yet it need not be like this. Smart (as well as responsible) employers understand the business as well as the moral case for helping employees with caring responsibilities to stay in work. Such organisations identify their employee carers, offer flexible and home-working, carer leave, support internal networks of employee carers, provide access to advice and information, and continuously learn and improve through exchanges with other employers as well as regular feedback from employees.

The very best employers help ex-carers to return to work; explore how technology can make life easier for working carers – especially those caring at a distance; and use their influence to help shape public policies and programmes to value, respect and support carers. As populations age around the world and people seek longer working lives, this is an urgent and growing challenge for employers.

I am very clear. Responsible employers will now have policies both for helping their older workers and for their working carers and ex-carers who want to return to work. This is integral to being a responsible business.

David Grayson is professor of corporate responsibility at Cranfield School of Management and chairman of the charity Carers UK. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Ethical Corporation. His new book "Take Care: How to be a great employer for working carers” is published by Emerald.

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