Spare a thought for family and friend carers. It would be hard to find another group that contributes so much to society for such little recognition.
There are about 2.7 million carers in Australia, most of them female, looking after people with disabilities and the elderly, often while struggling to hold down regular careers to pay their way.
Hugh Bainbridge, a senior lecturer in the school of management at UNSW Business School, has extensively considered the workforce experience of employees with caring responsibilities. He says the role of carers still "flies under the radar".
This is despite the launch last year of the Australian government's National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a healthcare program that helps provide individualised support and services for people living with a permanent and significant impairment.
Bainbridge's concern is that an ageing population will add pressure to the army of carers and make it even harder for them to maintain their day jobs. This would rob businesses of significant skills and experience if carers exit the workforce.
"That's not news to people in the disability sector, but it is something to put on the agenda for organisations that are looking to maximise how they utilise available talent," Bainbridge says.
'It may seem more logical for managers to choose the person who is not going to have competing home demands that might detract from their work performance'
– TIMOTHY BROADY
Reducing job turnover
Bainbridge has co-authored a new paper with Timothy Broady, a senior researcher at Carers NSW, and Man Mandy Fong, a researcher at UNSW Business School. Titled Individualised Funding: How Disability Service Policy Can Assist in Maintaining Caregiver Employment, it sheds light on the importance of carers' non-work and professional roles.
The study notes that the type of disability can determine a care recipient's level of impairment and influences the tasks a carer undertakes, with one especially large group of carers being those who assist people with autism.
As those on the autism spectrum often display traits such as anxiety, depression and aggression, their carers can face a high level of caring demands.
In their findings, the researchers point to the benefits that individualised funding for people with disabilities and their carers deliver, suggesting that it cuts the likelihood of carers having to quit their jobs. The model is "especially beneficial in reducing caregiver job turnover when the person being assisted [is] on the autism spectrum".
Without such assistance, the outlook may be ominous.
"The ability of informal carers to maintain a job contributes to the wellbeing of people with autism," the authors state. "However, without support, many employees find it difficult to combine employment and care."
Bainbridge believes the study reaffirms the importance of governments' role in framing policies that facilitate the ability of carers to support people in need while participating in the workforce.
In recent years, many people with disabilities and their families have sought individualised funding arrangements as the support option that best meets their needs.
The state of NSW has been at the forefront of such a shift, offering the Supported Living Fund since 2012 and the Living My Life My Way framework since 2013. These person-centred approaches allocate funding to an individual rather than to a program or a funded provider and are designed to give families dealing with a disability more flexibility.
According to Broady, the funding of support services for those with a disability, along with the requirements of carers, is a complex issue that needs to be raised "regularly and more prominently" in government, media and social circles.
"Their contribution, both in their caring role but also their working role, often gets glossed over," he says.
"Yet there are many carers who manage to balance both roles quite well and who do have very productive and successful careers."
But he adds that many carers downplay their duties with senior executives in mainstream workplaces for fear of missing out on roles or promotions, with management sometimes perceiving that they may be too busy to take on extra duties and responsibilities.
"It may seem more logical for managers to choose the person who is not going to have competing home demands that might detract from their work performance," Broady says.
"Issues like that can often mean that caring is not at the forefront within a workplace."
Given that data from the 2015 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, shows that the weekly median income of primary carers is 42% lower than non-carers, the career and financial concerns of carers are understandable.
Broady believes that education within the workforce about carer roles has never been more important. One of Carers NSW's key roles is to deliver training programs for employers to ensure they recognise the impact of carers across society and within business.
The big advantage for employers that get it right, Broady adds, is that they benefit from better recruitment and retention of excellent workers who may also just happen to be carers.
The researchers suggest that for two key reasons individualised funding may be especially important for employees who care for a person with autism.
First, because this type of care typically involves close and constant supervision, the flexibility of individualised funding allows these employees to obtain higher-quality support services that are more effective at addressing the needs of the care recipient.
Second, caring for people with autism often requires the coordination of multiple service providers, so "the ability to exert greater control over how funding is used is particularly helpful in allowing an employee to maintain his or her job".
In summary, the authors argue that "a care recipient's disability type will influence the benefits accrued from individualised funding such that this funding is especially helpful in reducing turnover for employees who care for someone with autism".
It's also anticipated that this funding model will reduce carer turnover because of its beneficial effects for care recipients and carers.
Bainbridge hopes it is a message that is being heard in government and business circles.
"Many governments, both Labor and Liberal, have talked about trying to increase the workforce participation rate and getting people back into the workforce," he says.
"There is no doubt that an inability to combine work and caring is one of the major barriers that is keeping this group outside paid employment."
'There is no doubt that an inability to combine work and caring is one of the major barriers that is keeping this group outside paid employment'
– HUGH BAINBRIDGE
Pressure on all sectors
Clearly, the demands on carers in Australian society are not going to diminish. A 2016 report from Anglicare Sydney – Carers: Doing it Tough, Doing it Well – raises concerns that carer supports will actually be diminished under the NDIS.
Given this background, the research of Bainbridge, Broady and Fong is important in that it builds on earlier research that tended to focus only on the person being cared for and neglected the interdependencies in the caregiver-care recipient relationship.
For organisations and business, Bainbridge says the big takeaway from the research is that individualised funding cuts carer job turnover, implying that work-family researchers should make greater efforts to understand how the broader policy context shapes carer employment outcomes.
With an ageing population, Bainbridge says government and business ignore such issues at their peril.
"We need to become increasingly aware that with ageing populations people become more disabled and these sorts of things are going to be major organisational considerations as the population ages towards 2050."
Furthermore, he says there are opportunities for smart companies to create a pro-carer environment because "there is a growing population of people who are looking for those types of carer-friendly workplaces".
Broady agrees, saying the prevalence of conditions such as autism and the rapid growth in dementia as the Australian population ages, will put pressure on all sectors of society.
"As the demand increases it's not going to be viable as a society to say, 'It's too hard to balance work and care so we'll just have to focus on care and someone else can pick up the work slack', or vice-versa," he says