How to support employees who are also carers

'Any one of you could become a carer at any time,' says former Westpac employee

How to support employees who are also carers

For Victoria-based Helen Johnson, becoming a carer was something that happened unexpectedly.

“When my second son was born, he was rushed straight down to Melbourne, which was 180 kms from our home,” she told HRD Australia. “And the caring role kicked in very, very unexpectedly.”

For more than 30 years, Johnson has been a carer for her youngest son Ben, who was born with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, an extremely rare syndrome which caused multiple severe and profound disabilities. Ben was also diagnosed with severe autism at the age of four, and became a paraplegic in 2009 due to an unexplained post-operative medical complication that caused an incomplete spinal cord injury.

“My pathway to parenting and motherhood certainly took a diversion,” Johnson said.

She talked to HRD about her experience as a carer and an employee, and offered tips she’d want HR teams to know about in supporting carers.   

Working and being a carer

Johnson had been working as a bank manager for Westpac – one of the first women to be in that role at the time – and she said the company had been very supportive when she had to undertake her caring responsibilities.

“They met with me, they were willing to give me time without pay,” she explained. “It would have been a blessing if I could take carers leave. I took maternity leave and back then you didn't get paid at all when you took maternity leave. But it would have been nice now like these days to have paid carers leave.”

Rather than returning to full time work, Johnson initially returned as a casual before transitioning to a permanent part time position.

“I had a very, very supportive employer,” she said.

One of the challenges Johnson experienced when she returned to work was that her energy levels were not like they used to be.

“The complexity of care that was going on in my home life, it was just hard to separate that in the banking world – to leave it at home,” she said. “And also the unpredictability because I just didn't know when my son was going to become unwell and it was frequent.”

In addition to her son’s caring needs, Johnson also took on a caring role for her chronically ill father in 2003. Her father lived with her family until he passed away in 2010.

“He was bed bound the last two years of his life and my husband and I were just doing the night care support,” Johnson said. “And as well as at the same time Ben was in hospital in Melbourne for six months because he became paralysed from a medical error. It was a whirlwind of ‘I don't know how we did it’.”

What helped Helen as a carer

To keep up with her workplace knowledge while she was on maternity leave, Johnson created a network of women who weren’t carers but were on maternity leave.

“We all came together once every six months,” she explained. “And I gathered all the new, updated policy changes and everything from our local branch and informed everybody of what was going on within our banking world, just to keep connected.

“So that was really important. When you take time off as a carer and you want that employee to return, it's just so important to keep them connected with the systems. And some carers just can't, they haven't got the energy or they might not have the willpower or they might not have the emotional ability to retain [that information]. But it should be an option offered. So that was one challenge I had that I personally overcome.”  

Advice for HR teams

In 2023, the government launched a Carer Inclusive Workplace Initiative (CIWI) to help employers develop and adopt practices to support carers. The CIWI offers a self-assessment for employers to determine their level of inclusivity and direct them to further learning resources they may require.

Johnson went on to describe how HR teams can support employees who are also carers.

Communication with management: For Johnson, being transparent and communicating her needs with her management team was important. She explained to her managers why she needed flexibility around the time she arrived at work and the ability to stay back later to make up for it.

“I needed a flexible workplace,” she said. “I absolutely needed to be able to arrive a bit later. If I didn't get there at 9.30am or nine o'clock but have that understanding that it's okay, as long as I messaged.

“Open the door, have a clear communication opportunity for anyone if they've got caring responsibilities to talk to the manager so that you can work out a plan.”

But also be aware that not all carers want to share their story, Johnson added.

“Some carers don't want to share their whole life and that is challenging,” she said. “It's up to the individual.”

Communication with staff: Johnson believes HR teams should talk about caring more broadly, rather than targeting an individual. 

“Talking about caring but giving scenarios,” she said. “And any one of you could become a carer at any time and never make a judgment on that.”

Johnson also believes information about carers should be included as part of professional development.

“It just should be part of a staff meeting,” she said. “It should be part of community information because everyone in every place will be connected with or have to serve or support in their workplace, a carer; I'm talking shops, an office, somebody who's a carer may be a client, a customer. So they're everywhere.”

Consider the financial impact of care: Johnson explained that her son became paralysed at a time before the NDIS and the lack of funds to support the cost of necessary equipment was “debilitating”.

“That's something else that people aren't aware of is the impact in every way – emotional, financial – because if you can't work, you don't get paid either,” she said. “To have a reduction of a full-time income just out of the blue, all of a sudden, does create huge financial impact and mental health stress. Now NDIS, thank God, is around. It does help people a lot.”

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