Flexible working is great but carers should have rights too

Andrew Marr experienced the need for a family carer after a stroke. David Cheskin/PA

If you are a carer, the need for flexibility can creep up slowly or arrive overnight. Guardian journalist Jackie Ashley and her broadcaster husband Andrew Marr experienced this after he suffered a stroke and their lives were put into turmoil. Both have written about how this affected them, calling for new ways of supporting carers in similar situations.

The couple highlighted a suggestion made by the Institute for Public Policy Research of a German policy, called Familienpflegezeit (family caring time), where collective bargaining agreements enable some employees with caring responsibilities to reduce working hours to a minimum of 15 hours a week for up to two years. “It’s taken for granted that pregnant women get maternity leave,” they said. “So why shouldn’t men and women keeping another person decently alive get similar guarantees?”

The German policy, which is not a legal entitlement but linked to a national long-term care insurance scheme, builds in job security and flexibility for the employee and the employer.

Employees in the UK currently have the right to a few days emergency leave (without pay) for family reasons and, if they are parents or carers, to request flexible working. But unlike Sweden and Japan where paid leave, for a limited period, is offered for those caring for someone who is dying or seriously ill, more generous provisions are not yet on the policy agenda here.

The right to request flexible working is set to extend to all employees with at least six months’ service, not just parents and carers, under the Coalition’s Children and Families Bill. This development looks to be that rare thing, a policy which benefits all and is based on consensus between government and opposition parties. The new bill feels like real progress; yet it could go so much further.

Flexible working

Flexible working can mean reducing or re-scheduling your normal working hours or working all or part of the time from home. It may mean more flexible start and finish times, extended lunch breaks or the freedom to swap shifts with a co-worker. It sometimes involves taking odd days or hours out, to take a relative to medical appointments, help in a crisis or respond to the needs of someone whose care cannot be planned.

A right to request flexible working was first introduced in Britain in 2002 for parents of young children and/or of a disabled child under 18. Four years later, this right was extended to parents of all children up to 16 and carers supporting sick, frail or disabled people. Introduced under Labour, these measures followed strong lobbying by parents’ and carers’ organisations and consultation with the business community.

The government-commissioned Work-Life Balance Survey, conducted four times between 2000-11, shows growing take-up of home working, compressed working weeks and part-time work. By 2011, most employees were aware of their rights (79% of women and 72% of men) and 60% of employees had worked flexibly in the past year. Just over half of those caring for an adult said access to flexible working had been important when they first accepted their job.

Business leaders may like to note that people in large organisations took up flexible working more often than those in small firms and women, parents and carers made requests more often than other workers. Most requests (79%) were accepted by employers; 61% without negotiation, compromise or appeal.

The rights introduced in 2002 and 2006 also produced surprisingly little conflict; there were only 350 Employment Tribunal claims related to flexible working rights in 2009-10 and under 0.1% of all tribunal claims in 2003-08 were for this reason.

However, there can still be anxiety around taking up the right, usually because people feel they might be perceived to lack full commitment to their career. There is evidence in surveys that some managers lack understanding of caring responsibilities or may think these should be handled outside work.

From assessments it has made, the government thinks that anxieties around asking for flexible working for whatever reason will reduce when the right is extended to all employees with six months’ service, but that requests by people who are not parents or carers will rise only slightly.

Caring responsibilities likely to rise

Being able to request flexible working is a step in the right direction for carers and as the government’s assessment indicates, it is still carers that are most likely to take up the right.

Some fear the special status of parenting and caring could be lost as new flexible working changes are implemented, or that societal respect for parental and caring roles could evaporate. This seems unlikely as taking family life seriously is a strong value in our society. Parenting and caring are common life experiences and most managers and work colleagues have some understanding of the pressures involved. However, many argue that an ageing population and longer lives for sick and disabled people call for a more specific set of carer’s rights.

Greater access to flexible working addresses part of the challenge these societal changes bring, but won’t be enough for parents and carers unless other provisions such as good quality affordable childcare; reliable caring and household services for older and disabled people; measures to address carers’ loss of earnings, such as the new German scheme, and an approach to leave rights for carers closer to that taken in Sweden and Japan.

Marr is surely right that additional measures of this type should be the next step the government looks at here too.