I was reminded of this last month, when campaigners understandably reacted angrily to the lack of any tangible plan for social care reforms in the Queen’s speech, and then again this week, when the Alzheimer’s Society described how inadequate social care has left dementia sufferers unprotected from infections, falls and dehydration.
The lack of progress on reform has a direct effect on social care workers and more subtle, indirect consequences for unpaid carers, in an exasperating double-whammy. As the level of support provided to struggling paid workers decreases, reliance on unpaid carers is set to increase.
While much has already been written and said about the impact of home-schooling during the pandemic on women’s employment, we know far less about other forms of unpaid care work and how this has been affected by Covid measures. One recent study gave us a strong hint, in revealing that 70 per cent of the UK’s unpaid carers are experiencing worsened mental health during the pandemic. Many more unknown impacts remain.
A new study we are conducting at Heriot Watt University aims to fill this knowledge gap, and to provide information and insight that will enable employers and the government to better understand how to support workers who are balancing paid jobs with unpaid care work. Early findings from our research show the hidden – yet very real – costs of unpaid care work.
Responses received so far show that balancing unpaid care work for a disabled or long-term unwell adult family member places considerable strain on people, who report finding it nearly impossible to either work full-time, or to maintain a professional career. This can result in workers having to leave professional careers for lower paid work, which offers greater flexibility, with the subsequent detrimental impact on their financial security.
Some carers are reporting ‘carer burnout’ and emotional exhaustion as a result not only of the time spent caring, but the toll taken by the intensity of providing care for a loved one.
And while the pandemic-induced shift to remote working has offered more flexibility for some unpaid carers, for others it has restricted access to respite and day care, exacerbating the work-life imbalances felt before the pandemic.
Our research is still in its early stages, and we would welcome more responses from anyone balancing unpaid care work with employment – particularly more men, whose views are underrepresented thus far.
Unpaid carers have been carrying the hidden costs of their work for too long. We have a chance to change that by understanding more closely the experiences of those who undertake this testing balancing act every day.
Professor Kate Sang, Edinburgh Business School
You can complete and share the study here.