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Carers gain Right to Request Flexible Work

But not just an add-on to parents' rights, say campaigners

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 prevailed.

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 other institutions.

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 viability.

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 altogether.

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.


An important step forward

To many people it always seemed a touch arbitrary to allow only parents with children under 6 the "right to request flexible work".

Last year the government too steps in the Work and Families Act to recognise that many people have caring responsibilities for adults.  We look at the new provisions that came into force in April 2007, and highlight how employers need to respond.



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