In April this year, the "Right to Request"
flexible work in the UK was extended to include carers of
spouses, partners and relatives. Previously the right
applied only to parents of children under 6 and parents of
disabled children under 18.
Under these regulations, to
qualify as a carer you must be, or expect to be, caring for a
spouse, partner or relative or live at the same address as the
adult needing care.
The "Right to Request" operates in the same way as the
existing right for parents of young children established under
the 2002 Employment Act. It is not a right to flexible
work, only a right to request, just like it says.
Employers can still say "no" - but they have to have good
business reasons to do so.
But the experience under the earlier legislation shows that
this right to request has not been as contentious as some
feared. Many commentators foresaw a flood of tribunal
cases on the horizon, and that just hasn't happened.
Employers haven't felt swamped by people requesting the right,
nor have their been many instances of employers arbitrarily
refusing the request. Good sense, it would seem, has
Responding to context
Carers' organisations, however, warn that the new provisions
should not be seen as simply an add-on to the provisions for
parents. Despite apparent similarity, the context of
responding to situations where people need to dovetail working
and caring is usually very different.
Having and caring for a baby is demanding and stressful, but
it is also in most cases a very happy experience, and one that
has a fairly clear timeline developing through pregnancy and
maternity/paternity leave into early years care.
The varieties of contexts in which care is provided for other
adults, however, is often distressing, unpredictable and can be
brought on suddenly without warning, as well as being subject to
periodic emergencies and indefinite terms of hospitalisation or
intensive home care.
For both the employee and the employer, this can make
work arrangements and workloads more difficult to plan.
Being aware of this is very important if new flexible working
arrangements are to succeed.
The wider picture
The background to this new right is one of social change,
with people living longer and medical and social care services
"supporting" people in their homes rather than in hospitals or
Now 3 in 5 people will end up caring for someone at some
point in their working lives, with 2 million people moving in
and out of caring every year. 1 in 5 carers give up paid
work to do caring.
Carers organisations say that over the next 20 years, the
economy will need and extra 2 million workers, and society will
need an extra 3 million carers.
The government also expects people to be working for longer.
But it is very much people in their 50s and 60s who shoulder the
greatest responsibility in caring for partners and parents, and
who feel the greatest pressure to give up working.
What should employers do?
Employers do need to respond to the Act by instituting
appropriate policies to deal with the right to request in the
context of caring demands.
We always advise that dealing with requests for flexible work
should be "reason neutral" - i.e. that the employer should not
be put in a position of making judgements on the employees
person situation, but purely acting on the basis of operational
This still broadly applies. However, policies can
address the requirements for additional and/or variable patterns
of flexibility - such as the need for extended periods of
homeworking, temporary or periodic reductions of hours, etc.
Polices and practice should also address the potential need
for additional support for staff who may be under intense
emotional stress or who become extremely fatigued. Line
managers in particular may need additional training to learn how
to deal with these situations, especially if they are new to
dealing with flexible work.
It would be naive, however, to pretend that flexible work
will always work smoothly in these contexts, with no impacts on
performance or workloads for colleagues. It may be that in
some cases, flexible working is the best and most reasonable
alternative to extended periods of leave or giving up work
So in such cases, employers may need to respond in a slightly
different way than they would to an employee who has different
demands at home. This may mean not simply accepting or
rejecting the "business case" for flexibility made by the
employee, but actively working with him/her and their colleagues
to find a suitable solution.
The need for additional flexibility may be temporary or
intermittent, and in that way may also differ from other
requests for flexible working. So it is important for
employers to be aware that they are unlikely to be dealing with
a situation where the employee is permanently or continually in
crisis: their role should be to enable stability and continuity.
In the end, most employers recognise the need to retain
skilled and experienced workers, and to reduce ad absenteeism.
Helping employees to combine work with caring responsibilities
through flexible work wherever possible is the best way forward.