Finding work that works as a mother and carer #IWD18

Finding work that works as a mother and carer #IWD18

Seven years ago, on 8th March 2011, while I was busy giving birth to my second child, thousands of women marched the sun strewn streets of London to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

As I peered out of the 6th floor windows of the St Thomas’s Hospital birth suite at the sea of purposeful female bodies and placards crossing Westminster Bridge below me, I never imagined that day would leave its mark on me as any kind of feminist or campaigner. Between greedy gasps of glorious gas and air, I had no idea that the little boy I was about to give birth to would open my eyes to a world where women are so often vastly disadvantaged.

I didn’t know my little boy would have a disability. I didn’t know I was about to become not just a parent but also a carer. I didn’t know that would put me in a position where continuing to follow my career path in the conventional way would become impossible.

The juggling that today’s working parents face in keeping it all together at home and at work is a constant headline hitter.      When caring responsibilities are thrown into the mix, for all too many parents they soon find the option to juggle just isn’t there at all. The balls are not in their hands, or even in their court.

For many parents, they soon discover that there is no workable equilibrium between the demands of employment and the demands of caring for a child with special needs or disabilities. Whether through exhaustion from managing night-time care, or through finding themselves buried under a constant avalanche of malco-ordinated health and social care appointments, the window for productive work shrinks rapidly.

Even for the lucky few, whose child sleeps without need for medication, feeds or nighttime settling, and whose appointment load is reduced to just a few a month through ruthless navigation of the system, the chance of finding employment flexible enough to allow for the inevitable emergencies, equipment deliveries and paediatric or education reviews is slim.

But talk to just a few parents of children with disabilities who have managed to find work that works, and they will tell you that work can be not just a financial necessity but a sanity saver too.

 

Right now, employers are just beginning to switch on to the benefits of flexible working. There are the enlightened few, who have been doing it for years, and reaping the productivity and loyalty rewards as a result, but for the mainstream it is still early days.

While we are on this path to flexible working becoming the norm for the majority of office based jobs (because it can and absolutely should), please let’s not forget the carers amongst us.

Most often, it’s the women who are the parent carers.

Most often, they aren’t returning to the workforce. I am one of just 16% who has, compared to 74% of mothers of non-disabled children.

We need to raise up the 16%.

 

 

This post was written for International Women’s Day 2018, as part of #whenibecameamother being hosted on Instagram by @steph_dontbuyherflowers

 

Who cares at work? Are you investing in the carers in your workforce?

Who cares at work? Are you investing in the carers in your workforce?

Four years ago I sat in front of a group of parliamentarians at Westminster, alongside four engaging, intelligent women who all had successful careers and who also happened to be parents and carers for their disabled children.

We were there to share our stories about the childcare crisis for disabled children, and the extreme challenges of maintaining any kind of career around having a child with disabilities.

Under the wings of Contact, and Working Families, who paved the way in campaigning for affordable childcare provision for disabled children, we achieved widespread awareness of the need for change, and an amendment to new childcare legislation to help make childcare more affordable for parent carers, who often pay a huge premium for scant provision.

Since that time, the conversation has moved on. Childcare provision still needs to evolve. Massively so. But what’s really exciting is that the other main driver in making it possible for parent carers to work – flexible employment – seems to be undergoing quite a revolution.

The movement towards flexible working becoming the norm in the UK gained major ground in the UK last year. Though the benefits of flexible working had been established many years previously, in 2017 it was the topic du jour for companies alongside workplace wellbeing. Report after report was published, proclaiming the ‘workplace revolution’, with firms not embracing flexible working finger pointed as being out of step with employees.

Perhaps it’s the millennial effect, as more and more of the next generation take leadership positions in the workforce. A generation that knows it is possible to carry out many work tasks effectively, more so in fact, when you have greater choice over where and when you will do so.

Maybe you are one of those millennial leaders, or perhaps you’re the other side of 40 and have been managing teams for years. Either way, you will surely be thinking about how to embrace flexibility in your team or in your business.

The reality is that if you’re not, employees will leave your organisation and seek work elsewhere. Either at companies who are embracing the change or by working for themselves, as increasing numbers of people are doing because technology is enabling us to do so.

The latest Modern Families Index from Working Families showed that work is taking a heavy toll on home life for many. Employees who come home too drained to even cook a meal, with day after day of juggling family or caring commitments with an inflexible work schedule, are finally saying they have had enough and are voting with their feet.

For parent carers with disabled children, the challenge of combining work, parenting and caring can be insurmountable.

Climbing a mountain of managing personal care, feeds, medication and therapy, school runs and the usual breakfast rush before clocking in for a day’s work.

Juggling not just school plays, celebration assemblies and sports days, which you actually want to be at, with a multitude of things you don’t want to be at but have to.

Team Around the Child meetings, EHCP reviews, paediatric appointments of multiple types all at uncoordinated times, wheelchair assessments at the opposite end of the county, social care reviews, adaptations meetings, equipment and medication deliveries. These commitments quickly fill up the calendar if you let them and it’s often a fight with health and social care to reduce the appointment load.

Coordinating all of that while keeping one’s bottom appended to a chair in a particular office for 40+ hours a week is probably impossible. Certainly I’ve never managed it and nor would I want to, parent carer or otherwise.

What is possible though, is making work work around these commitments. Working from home, and videoing in to team meetings on the day of an equipment delivery. Starting early or finishing late to accommodate a TAC meeting. Making use of the hospital wifi to whip up a report or a proposal while waiting for an appointment. Holing up in a cafe on a Saturday morning to write a strategy.

It’s estimated that between 1 in 7 and 1 in 9 people in the workforce have caring responsibilities at home, be that for a disabled child or a sick or elderly relative. With up to million more UK workers secretly juggling caring responsibilities with their jobs, because they are nervous about telling employers.

If you’re a manager or a business owner, you will almost certainly have carers in your teams.

If you don’t know who they are, they’re pretty easy to spot even if they don’t identify themselves as such.

More than likely they will be the ones avoiding the afternoon water cooler chit chat. Not because they are anti-social, but because they HAVE to leave on time.

More than likely they will be the ones who never pull a sickie. Not because they are never ill but because they know a time will come when they need to ask for unpaid leave to accommodate their caring responsibilities.

More than likely they will be the ones who show unfailing commitment to their work. Not because they are workaholics but because disability and ill-health is expensive and they NEED that salary to keep on rising. Perhaps to pay for premium-priced specialist childcare, or to buy a wheelchair accessible vehicle, or to adapt their home.

At the moment, the law is not on our side as carers. There is no legal right to ‘carer’s leave’. Most of us resort to using up annual leave entitlement to manage caring needs, taking unpaid leave or taking sick leave if the stress of working and caring starts to affect their own health.

Until paid carer’s leave is a legal requirement with government funding attached – like statutory maternity pay and sick pay – there are things you can do as an employer, a business owner or a team manager to help your company hold on to talented people in whom you have inevitably invested significant time and money.

  • Introduce paid leave for carers off your own back. It’ll pay for itself in loyalty and talent retention.
  • Enable staff to work flexibly wherever possible. Use technology to your advantage. Focus on productivity not presenteeism.
  • Remember dads are carers too. This isn’t about just women in the workforce and nor should it be.
  • Foster an open culture that acknowledges your employees have a home life that will always be more important to them than you are.
  • Put workplace wellbeing at the heart of your people management. A well and happy employee will always do a better job, at work and at home. Stress helplines and yoga classes are just a sticking plaster though. The key to wellness at work is to place realistic workloads and clear objectives on your staff. Don’t leave them floundering under overwhelming or vague expectations. It’s a recipe for burnout, particularly for carers for whom there is no or little rest break at home.

With the cost of replacing talented employees in the many thousands, and the number of carers in the workforce expected to rise massively as the population ages and medical advances mean more children with disabilities survive, you will be saving yourself a packet by investing in your carers now.

When work and wellbeing didn’t mix

When work and wellbeing didn’t mix

This is the first time I have written anything for the blog since April. It was round about the Spring when I knew something definitely wasn’t right.

Since then, I’ve been right down to the bottom of the ocean and back up again. Not the exotic, pretty parts of the seabed, bursting with rainbow corals and shimmering shoals. Where I went, it was dark. Murky. Where you can’t see your hand in front of your face and you don’t know what’s coming up behind you next. But you know it’s a long way back up to the surface, if you can find it.

There was a time when I thought that negotiating the smoke and mirrors of the education and social care systems for Orange would call time on my sanity. This is the brutal truth for more SEND parents than I wished I knew. So far, for me, it hasn’t. But since I’ve had the weather eye of a hawk on that front, sharing the load with family and my band of SEND sisters, I missed the hurricane as it snuck up from the other side.

When Orange arrived, he changed my outlook on life, and work. I wanted to do something that mattered. Which isn’t always easy when you’ve built your career in public relations in the City and Soho. So getting a senior role at a NHS and social care provider finally felt like I could make a difference. A job where my personal values could come to life through my work. A career coach’s dream, right?

For the first year it felt amazing. I was good at this. Using my skills for something real and important. Engaging my brain in a way that became a wonderful distraction from dealing with the 5,674 ways the local authority was trying to make Orange’s home adaptations and school transport into a sticky quagmire.

When the storm clouds started to gather at work, I thought I could bat them away by listening to audiobooks about ‘how to be brilliant’ and blaring Tim Ferriss podcasts that would show me how to tackle any sort of work crisis that might come my way.

I thought that because I’ve had to tackle challenges so far out of the ordinary, like resuscitating my own child, that I could tolerate pretty much anything and come out of it unscathed.

But I couldn’t.

No amount of inspirational podcasts and books about creative brilliance and productivity could relieve me of the uncomfortable fact that being in my job was beginning to compromise my sanity.

A sorry but familiar tale of resource and people-power deficits that I thought I could overcome by just working myself harder. For longer.

A broken corporate culture that I thought I could overcome by imagining I was wearing a coat of armour at my desk, deflecting arrows as they flew.

The stuff of fantasy. But not the marshmallow kind.

None of this is news to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or switched on the tv in recent months. It’s health and social care. It’s the UK. There’s not enough money. Not enough people. And what happens then? People have a crap time at work and do a worse job.

I held on too long.

Why?

Because it matters to me that I work. That I have a career. That what I do makes a difference.

That as a mother of a disabled child I will cling on by my fingernails to the opportunity for financial independence and career development. Because I know others want that too.

I have campaigned about the rights of mothers of disabled children to have careers, too hard to just give it up. So walking out the door on an intolerable situation was out of the question.

In the end, my brain and body did it for me. Pushing too hard for too long eventually saw me unable to get out of bed bar a visit to the GP to find out why I felt like I was dying. Why I thought I was having heart attacks in the middle of the night. Why I couldn’t sleep. Why I spent two weeks on leave from work in the summer that I don’t remember a minute of.

It was a wake up call.

Months on and I have resigned from my job, with shiny new consultancy work waiting for me on the other side. I have started boxing again. Seen friends I haven’t seen in months. Taken up a new writing hobby as a theatre critic. And opened up this blog again to find a raft of messages from readers I didn’t know were reading but have given me a refreshed sense of why I write.

Because this matters. And I can make change happen on the outside. I don’t need to work inside the system to do it.