Working Carers- The Lost Tribe?

I remember it distinctly. It was just another rather mundane day at the office when I left a meeting to take an urgent phone call. One of our employees had recently become a dad but now – just a few weeks later – a routine blood test had revealed that his wife had acute myeloid leukaemia. She would need to spend many weeks in hospital in isolation and would be unable to care for their new baby. Shocked and floundering about how to handle this, the line manager asked if it would be ok to give our employee a period of compassionate leave. I said yes, and the CEO agreed, saying of course we’d pay him.

I’m sure many of us get calls like this, so why are we so often unaware of the working carers that we employ? Well, I think there are a number of factors that prevent us from knowing this. They include:

  1. The definition of ‘carer’ still isn’t widely understood.
  2. HR systems often don’t cater for ‘carers’ without customisation.
  3. Many people don’t classify themselves as carers if they are temporarily supporting a family member with cancer by, say, taking them to chemo sessions or doing the housework and shopping, they just get on with it.
  4. Many carers don’t self-identify themselves to their employers for the reasons given above, and because they fear it will be career limiting.
  5. Carers often don’t realise that they are protected against discrimination in law (by the Equality Act 2010) and can, for example, request flexible time off as well as leave to cope with emergencies.
  6. Carers’ policies are still not the norm in most companies. There might well be ‘family friendly’ policies in place, but sometimes these are buried in the company handbook and not easy to disentangle from other policies about parental leave, maternity policy and so on.
  7. Working carers are rarely on the radar of the CEO or the Board – at least not in practice!

There are estimated to be 1.5 million carers in the workforce, of whom about 500,000 are estimated to be working full-time or part-time and caring for someone with cancer. Moreover, as the population in general ages and lives longer more and more of us will be required to provide caring support of some kind to elderly parents and relatives. This will significantly impact on our working lives.

So I ask you the following questions: how many carers do you employ, and how many take advantage of the support services you provide? If you don’t know the answers, what will you do?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Can you find a way of encouraging carers to self-identify, so you can provide them with the support they need? Articles about who you’ve supported (with their permission, of course) and what you’ve done, posted on the company intranet or in a newsletter, could be a place to start.
  2. Why not, as part of a wider health and wellbeing initiative, set up a training programme which includes a session about managing carers? Macmillan can cover this as part of their training about work and cancer and, if you’d like, can tailor the training to your specific circumstances.
  3. Why not implement a Carers’ Policy which brings together all your policies about the support you currently provide carers? This will help existing carers and their managers access the help and support you currently provide.
  4. Finally, why not introduce a buddying scheme to provide support to carers? Some organisations already provide these for employees who have a cancer, but a network of buddies could prove just as effective for carers.

For more information about supporting carers for someone with cancer visit the Macmillan website.

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Barbara Wilson is Founder of Working with Cancer. For more information, visit or email me at

  • I heard of a great example yesterday. A woman caring for her husband was told by her workplace that they were goi to pay for a cleaner to go into their home for two hours a week! What a fabulous practical offer! And a relatively inexpensive way to demonstrate positive regard, gaining more respect and desire from the employee to stay in work as well as having quality time with her husband!