Carers Week 2022 - coming out from behind the scenes

Natalie Quilter , 13 June 2022

Carers Week is an annual campaign raising awareness of 6.5 million carers in the UK, highlighting the challenges unpaid carers face and recognising the contribution they make to families and communities throughout the UK.

This year’s theme is ‘Make caring visible, valued and supported’ with the belief unpaid carers and the challenges of caring should be recognised in all areas of life and society.

Many carers manage full or part-time jobs, often invisible to colleagues, returning every day after work to continue with their caring responsibilities. We rarely hear stories about carers and this is why I want to share my story and make it visible.

The NHF’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) report shows around one in five people in the housing association workforce including staff and executives have informal caring responsibilities, higher than 7% of the UK population. The report also recommends our sector seeks to improve and reduce data gaps as we are missing data on informal care responsibilities for most of our workforce.

I’ve used my personal experience as a career to spearhead the creation of a Carers Network at Notting Hill Genesis (NHG), offering practical and emotional support to our members of staff who care for others alongside carrying out their day jobs. Now I want to share my story and help organisations to provide support for staff with caring responsibilities.  

My story as a carer

As you may have guessed, I’m an unpaid carer and have been all my life, well as soon as I could be trusted to head to the local shop to buy some sweets by myself. I take care of  my mum who suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition that affects your brain and spinal cord where the coating that protects your nerves is damaged. She was diagnosed with MS in her 30s but despite being diagnosed early there is unfortunately no cure (yet).

From a young age whilst my dad was the main carer, I became a carer for my little brother carrying out the normal duties of a mother. This included picking up my little brother from school, taking him to his friends’ birthdays, cooking for the family, making lunches, helping with homework and ultimately trying to give him the most normal life possible, while making sacrifices in mine.

I was quite resentful at times, but growing up I realised I’d been selfish in my thoughts; it was not that my mum didn’t want to do all these duties, she just couldn’t. I understood how sad and sorry she felt for not being able to give me the life that I’ve been giving my little brother.

Whilst she was unable to carry out physical duties, she could manage the intangible ones, such as supporting me in going to university. Fast forward three years and joining the working world is where becoming a carer for my mum really kicked in and the realities of balancing both proved to be very difficult at times.

Starting a new role anywhere is stressful, but for most people knowing you can come home and relax after a long day is the goal but for carers, it's quite different. As soon as you step back inside your caring work commences which for me included cooking dinner washing/changing my mum and taking her to the toilet, the list goes on.

Sadly, MS also affects people emotionally and mentally so whilst doing all these jobs and caring for my mum, she could make some hurtful comments, which is hard to take especially when you haven't had a break.

Due to my mum’s condition, we get regular social services visits to check in on how we’re coping as a family and agreed to get counselling for further support as things began to take a toll with the condition worsening and with me taking on new work responsibilities. They reviewed my mum’s care programme and we were fortunate to secure three carers-a-day to help with some of the duties above.  

My dad has now recently retired but as a family, we’ve got an agreement in place to ensure we all take on an equal share of caring responsibilities and so we can cover each other if someone isn’t around or has work commitments.

Joining my mum up with support groups has had a positive impact as it’s allowed her to learn more about MS and given us all a better understanding of how to better manage the condition. Most importantly, it’s given her the opportunity to find a supportive community who’ve helped my mum to feel she’s not alone and doesn’t need to feel sad or sorry anymore.

Sharing my personal story as a carer at NHG has led to the creation of a Carers Network in February 2020. This has provided a safe space and foster a culture of inclusivity by offering support to all colleagues who care for others alongside carrying out their day jobs.

You can read about the importance of starting a Carers Network and the positive impact it’s made to NHG in our case study.

How can housing associations support carers?

As a sector, our social purpose is to create homes and communities where people want to live and help support the most vulnerable people in society. We also have a responsibility to embed a strong culture of inclusivity including putting initiatives in place to support staff such as carers with additional responsibilities on top of their day job.

There are a lot of resources, studies and reports on how organisations can support carers in their workforce and following on from personal experience at NHG  I want to share my top five tips below:

  1. Flexibility -Many organisations are now working in a hybrid format and for carers flexibility is key. Being able to leave or start later due to appointments or being around should their loved one need assistance. Organisations should consider informal and flexible working policies for longer term arrangements but for one-off occasions or relapses managers should be empathetic and provide flexibility where possible such as changing a mandatory office day.
  1. Education - it’s so important for employees and in particular managers to understand what being a carer really means and the rewards and challenges associated. We partnered with an external carers network charity supporting unpaid carers in West London. This group provided free workshops and ran webinars exploring what it means to be a carer, their rights and the economic impact. Alongside this, members from our Carers Network shared their personal stories, which is a great way to connect with staff and begin a conversation on this topic.
  1. Documentation - We should always be actively reviewing our policies to ensure they are in line with best practice, and to determine if any group of people are not included. Carers should be included in policies such as flexible working and leave policies, so they feel included and understand the scope for them. In NHG we’ve also updated our Diversity Inclusion Impact Assessments or otherwise known as Equality Impact Assessments to include carers. Therefore, any policy, project or programme carers will be actively considered ahead of a proposal moving forward.
  1. Data - Understanding the makeup of your organisation is key when making decisions, it also helps to understand how representative of the communities you serve.. You can add a question within your employee surveys, to collect data on staff with caring responsibilities and measure the full scope of equality, diversity, and inclusion. We have begun to ask this and have broken it down by caring for a child, adult or both.
  2. Carers Network - Creating a Carers Network is a great initiative to support carers and provide a safe space for colleagues to share experiences, resources and actively listen. You can find out more about the importance of starting a carers network and the positive impact it’s had on NHG in our case study.

As a social housing sector, let’s come together to make caring visible, valued and supported.