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Carers' rights in the workplace

Continuing to work while caring can help you feel good about yourself and provide you with social interaction outside of your caring role.

But staying in work or returning to work might also feel like a daunting prospect, and you may find it helpful to take some time off or ask your employer if you can work flexibly.

The employment law rights that are particularly relevant to carers are:

Flexible working

One way to help juggle your responsibilities may be to request flexible working from your employer. Flexible working benefits you by giving you a better work-life balance while still being able to earn a living.

Flexible working doesn't necessarily mean part-time hours. You may be able to work the same number of hours but at times that suit you, such as evenings or weekends, or work "compressed hours" – for example, you work the equivalent of the hours you would normally work in five days over four days, giving you an extra day free.

Other types of flexible working arrangements include:

  • working from home
  • "job sharing" with someone else who wants to work part-time
  • flexi-time – where you build up "credits" by working extra hours when you can, and then use this credit to take time off later
  • only working during term times – if you need to be around for a child outside of school hours
  • only working when the person you care for is being cared for by someone else – for example, they may have activities outside of the home on some days

You can either make an informal request to work flexibly – for example, if it would help you to reduce your hours for a few weeks – or you can request flexible working under the new statutory scheme if you would like a permanent change to your terms and conditions of employment.

Your right to request flexible working

All employees with 26 weeks of service have a statutory right to request flexible working. The request must be made to your employer in writing, and your employer must consider your request reasonably and have sound business reasons for turning it down.

You don't have to tell your employer why you would like to work flexibly, but you are more likely to identify a working arrangement that works for both you and your employer if your employer has this information.

Before you apply for flexible working

Before you speak to your employer, find out about their policy for supporting carers. You could do this by checking your staff handbook or intranet, or by speaking to your manager or human resources (HR) department.

Making a flexible working request

You are only legally entitled to make one application for flexible working each year. However, the company that you work for may be sympathetic if your situation changes and you need to make a second application.

You must make your request in writing and date it. Your employer may have a standard form you can use. Tips for making your case include:

  • Make it clear in your request that you're a carer. 
  • Include information about the person you care for and how you do this might help your case.
  • State what changes you'd like to make to your working hours or working pattern, how you think it will affect your job, and how any problems could be dealt with.
  • Say when you would like your flexible working to start and whether you've made a similar request in the past, giving the date.

It can take time for flexible working applications to be processed, so make the application as soon as possible.

If your request is agreed to, it will permanently change your contract and it may be difficult to change it back again. You could ask for flexible working arrangements on a trial basis to see whether they're right for you.

Why an employer can turn your request down

Your employer has to have good business reasons for turning down a flexible working request. The following count as business reasons:

  • It will mean extra costs for the employer.
  • It will make it difficult to meet customer demand.
  • Your employer won't be able to redistribute the work among the rest of the staff.
  • Your employer can't take on any more staff to cope with the extra work created by a change in your working patterns.
  • The changes you have requested will have a negative impact on quality or performance at your workplace.
  • There's not enough work available at the times you'd like to work.
  • Your employer already has structural changes planned.

If your employer rejects your request, they have to tell you their business grounds for refusing your application from the list above.

Find out more about applying for flexible working on the GOV.UK website.

Preparing your request to work flexibly

Being prepared could make all the difference. If you can show your employer how much their business could gain from flexible working, you stand a better chance of them agreeing to your request, or, where they have not been able to agree to your request, turning their initial "no" into a "yes".

But you should also be willing to listen to your employer's suggestions as you may be able to find a compromise that works for both you and your employer.

Make sure your request to work flexibly makes it clear why the particular arrangement you have asked for would be helpful to you, and outline the benefits of the proposed arrangement to your employer (or at least explain why you don't think it would be detrimental to the business).

Giving you the flexible working arrangement you have requested could, for example, enable you to continue working, or mean you can do the same number of hours but at different times of the day or in a different place (if you have requested homeworking).

Give your employer the facts about flexible working and carers, such as:

  • Carers make up more than 12% of UK employees.
  • More than 2 million people become carers each year.
  • Flexible working can mean a variety of things, such as a change in hours, working from home regularly or occasionally, or term-time or part-time working.

Explain to your employer the difference that flexible working can make to carers, such as:

  • Flexible working allows carers to continue working, and gives them vital social contact and friendship.
  • Paid work gives carers financial independence and boosts self-esteem.
  • People who juggle work and caring are committed to both. Any help they receive will be paid back with increased loyalty and effort. One working carer of elderly parents has said: "I personally go the extra mile for them because I appreciate what they're doing for me."

Explain to your employer the business benefits of flexible working, such as:

  • Flexible working can cut staff turnover, absences and employment costs. One national company believes: "Retaining carers through support or special leave arrangements saves the company about £1 million a year."
  • Many carers are aged 45 to 64 years old, and these are employees at the peak of their careers.
  • Being flexible about working hours on a daily basis often means that staff can look after the person they care for and still come to work. British Gas says: "The employee wins, the person who is being cared for wins, and the company wins as well."
  • Research by BT has discovered that their employees who work flexibly showed an average increase in productivity of 21%.
  • BT also says it made major savings through flexible working, including £1 billion in office costs and equipment.
  • Flexible working can save 12 million litres of fuel a year. Reduced CO2 emissions and traffic make it a "green" choice.
  • Research by Carers UK and the University of Leeds suggests that offering carers flexible ways of working brings greater productivity, improved company image, and higher staff morale.

Using these facts can help you make a strong argument in favour of being flexible.

What should you do if your employer refuses your request to work flexibly?

If your employer will not agree to you working flexibly, you can challenge their decision. You might want to challenge the decision directly with your employer as a first option, as you may be able to negotiate a good compromise.

However, if you are still unsatisfied with the decision, you can suggest conciliation to your employer. Conciliation is a process that enables you and your employer to discuss options and hopefully find a compromise with the help of a third party.

The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offers an early conciliation service. You also have the option of taking your case to an employment tribunal, but you will only be able to do this if you have first contacted Acas about early conciliation. 

Acas and other organisations that provide mediation services can help resolve differences between organisations and their staff.

If you believe your employer has not understood the benefits of flexible working for you, and the organisation has not followed procedures properly (for instance, if they have based their decisions on incorrect facts), you could ask if they would agree to conciliation. This is a faster, less formal and less stressful process than an employment tribunal.

If you are interested in conciliation, you should contact Acas on 08457 474747.

If you decide to take your case to an employment tribunal, you will need to contact Acas about conciliation first to allow you to make a claim. 

Time off for dependants

Employees have the right to take unpaid time off for certain emergencies (also known as "time off for dependants"). You have this right no matter how long you've worked for your employer.

Everyone has to cope with emergencies from time to time. As a carer, you may be more likely to have sudden emergencies to deal with.

You are entitled to "reasonable time off work" for emergencies involving the person you care for where they live in the same household as you or the cared-for person reasonably relies on you to make arrangements to care for them.

The right is to unpaid leave only, but your employer may choose to pay you during the time you are off work. You should therefore check your contract or company policy to see if your employer will pay you for this time off, but if they don't have a specific policy, this decision is up to them. 

Who is a 'dependant'?

A dependant can be your mother or father, your son or daughter, or anybody who lives with you as a member of your family and is dependent on you. A dependant can also be someone who would rely on your help in an emergency, such as an elderly neighbour who lives alone.

What counts as an emergency?

There are a number of situations that count as an emergency. Examples are:

  • When your care arrangements are temporarily disrupted (such as when a nurse doesn't arrive) or break down completely.
  • When someone you're looking after dies and you need to make arrangements or go to the funeral.
  • When someone you're looking after is ill or has been assaulted (for example, they have been mugged or your child has been in a fight).
  • When you need to make arrangements for the long-term care of someone you're looking after who is ill or injured (but this does not include giving them long-term care yourself).

Your rights allow for a "reasonable" amount of time off. Each case is different, but in most cases one or two days may be enough.

There is no set limit on how often you can claim time off for dependants as long as you are dealing with real emergencies. If your employer feels you are taking more time off than they can cope with, they need to let you know.

If the problem takes longer to deal with, let your employer know as soon as you can, explaining why you need more time and how much longer you think you will need. Put this in writing if you can. Your employer may have a form for you to fill in.

Having the right to take time off for dependants can give you some legal protection. If you think your employer has treated you unfairly because you have taken time off to deal with an emergency or help a dependant, ask your union or a legal adviser for advice.

Unpaid parental leave

Parents and other employees with parental responsibility can take up to 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave for each of their children under the age of five.

The government is extending the qualifying age for children, and from April 2015 you will be able to take unpaid parental leave if you have parental responsibility for a child under the age of 18.

You are able to take up to four weeks of unpaid parental leave in any year, and more if your employer agrees to this. 

Paid annual leave

All employees are entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid annual leave a year (pro-rated for part-time workers). An employer can choose to include bank holidays as part of a worker's statutory annual leave.

Other ways your employer can help you continue to work and care

Discretionary unpaid and paid leave

As well as your statutory right to take time off in an emergency, your employer may allow you extra time off, either paid or unpaid. This is sometimes referred to as "special leave" or "compassionate leave".

There is no statutory entitlement to this leave, but you may have a right to it under your employment contract, or it may be something that your employer agrees to on an ad hoc basis.

Compassionate leave can help when you need to look after the person in your care for a longer period of time, such as when they come out of hospital.

Granting a career break

If working and caring become too difficult and you are thinking about giving up work, ask about a career break or sabbatical. Some employers offer paid or unpaid career breaks, so it is worth checking. It would mean you could concentrate on your caring role for a while knowing that you have your job to go back to.

If you are on an unpaid career break, you may also be entitled to Carer's Allowance during this time, even if your salary is usually above the threshold, as your eligibility for Carer's Allowance is assessed based on your weekly net income.

However, once your circumstances have changed and you return to work, you will need to notify the Department of Work and Pensions about a change in your circumstances.

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Page last reviewed: 25/11/2014

Next review due: 25/11/2016

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