In 2007, a study conducted by Carers Australia, Australian Unity and Deakin University analysed the health and wellbeing of people who had a responsibility to care for another person.
The study identified that carers had "the lowest collective wellbeing of any group we have yet discovered". It also revealed that carers generally experienced depression.
Today, these findings are even more relevant as Australia's population ages and more employed adults find themselves in a non-work, caring role.
How then, can businesses support the increasing number of carers in the workforce? Can these companies use this support as a differentiator to be recognised as an employer of choice, or as a method of improving workforce wellbeing?
And if workplace support is offered, how does the wellbeing effect differ between carers whose care recipients are highly dependent and carers whose recipients are relatively independent?
These are questions examined by Hugh Bainbridge, a senior lecturer in the school of management at UNSW Business School, and co-author Timothy Broady from Carers NSW, in
Caregiving responsibilities for a child, spouse or parent: The impact of care recipient independence on employee wellbeing, published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour.
An enormous difference
"There are three things we wanted to know," Bainbridge says. "One was whether the level of independence of the person being cared for affected an employee's wellbeing.
"Second, was if an employee is caring for someone with a low level of independence, does that disrupt their career and does that career disruption increase the chances of becoming underemployed?
"Third, was whether the effect of caring on wellbeing is influenced by support available in or outside the workplace. Often when managers think about employees who care for family members with disabilities there is a tendency to direct them to non-work forms of support. They identify caring as a specialised issue that requires specialised support from outside the organisation.
'Historically, managers have tended to think about parenting when they consider caring roles outside of work. That’s now shifting'
– HUGH BAINBRIDGE
"But when managers think about supporting employees with parental responsibilities, there is a greater emphasis on how the organisation can directly support staff through flexible workplace arrangements or via supportive supervisors and co-workers.
"These different ways of supporting employees with care responsibilities, work versus non-work support, represent two alternative points of intervention for organisations. However, until now, we didn't have good data on the relative effectiveness of these two approaches. So this gap really motivated the current study."
In this respect, Bainbridge and Broady have found that greater non-work support reduces the career disruption reported by employees.
But what about workplace support? Does a high or low level of support from their employer make a difference to carer wellbeing?
Not to those caring for relatively independent people, Bainbridge says. But a higher level of support makes an enormous difference in terms of career disruption, underemployment and wellbeing for those looking after less independent care recipients.
Wants and needs
For Bainbridge, these results are encouraging because they reveal that organisations have multiple pathways to assist employees in balancing work and care.
Managers can improve access to support outside the workplace by publicising online information sources and professional phone-based support services.
They also benefit when workplace initiatives improve the supportiveness of supervisors and colleagues and encourage the formation of work-based social support groups that allow employees to come together to share concerns and tips for managing work and care.
A good employer for carers, Bainbridge says, is likely a good employer for all types of people.
"The organisations that broadly conceptualise the wants and needs of employees outside the workplace don't just do it well for carers but naturally do it well for everybody," he explains.
"Historically, managers have tended to think about parenting when they consider caring roles outside of work. That's now shifting. We are seeing that organisations are increasingly using work/life rather that work/family terminology to recognise the diversity in the non-work commitments of employees.
"That shift leads to a more helpful way of thinking about how organisations can cater for the demands of a diverse workforce."
Employees who are now in their 40s are likely have parents in their 70s or 80s. Then there are employees in their 30s, and in their 50s, who also have elderly parents. Much of the workforce has likely entered, or will soon enter, into a carer's role.
Those who are looking after a person with lower levels of independence, Bainbridge found, will suffer greater career disruption. This leads to a more serious level of underemployment and lower wellbeing.
And because employees with caring responsibilities are likely to be older – perhaps highly skilled managers or senior-level employees – they represent a significant loss to an organisation when these effects of caring contribute to turnover.
Physical and emotional toll
None of this comes as a surprise to Elena Katrakis, CEO of Carers NSW. Her organisation exists to support and be a voice for "informal, unpaid, family-and-friend carers", she says.
Katrakis notes that carers can be five years old, or 85 years old. They may have a sibling, parent or child with a disability, mental illness, a chronic condition, motor neurone disease, dementia, or be someone who is frail aged. Whoever they are, the caring role can consume their lives.
'Respite for carers, from the government, seems to be forever diminishing in terms of services and funding'
– ELENA KATRAKIS
"One in 10 of us are informal family carers within our community, and one in eight in the workforce," Katrakis says.
"If you've got a heavy caring load, that caring is going to impact on your ability to interact with other people. You're going to be feeling particularly isolated because of your caring role. Carers focus on the person they care for, rather than themselves. That means they don't look after their own physical, emotional or mental health, or wellbeing."
By recognising the vital role that carers play in society, employers need to create flexibility wherever they can within roles in order for carers to feel supported, financially and in terms of job security, Katrakis says. It's important that carers also reach out for assistance and discuss their various needs with their employers.
"Respite for carers, from the government, seems to be forever diminishing in terms of services and funding," she explains.
"A lot of the funding that has previously been provided, not only in NSW but across the country, is transitioning to the NDIS. The NDIS is great, but it means some of the funds allowing respite for carers are now no longer available."
While the NDIS helps to fund respite for care recipients, Katrakis says, it does little to reduce the pressure on the carers themselves.
Many carers find there is an impact on their wellbeing to such a degree that they may end up requiring care and support for themselves.
Employers are a major part of the solution, Bainbridge and Katrakis agree, and the signs are promising.
"We know carers are interested in finding workplaces where they can better combine work and care," Bainbridge says.
"We also know that most carers really do want to combine work and care. They don't want to lose the financial, social and self-actualisation benefits offered by employment. I'm excited about current initiatives around employer reputation and how being known as a carer-friendly workplace may be a source of employee attraction.
"If organisations can attract and hold on to these people, it's good for everyone."