When your colleagues ask how your weekend was, do you tell them you were called by an anxious neighbour who found your mother walking in her nightdress down the road? When your manager asks if you are joining the team to clear plastic out of the local river on Saturday, do you say you cannot help because that’s the weekend you are looking after the children? When everyone is down the pub to celebrate the end of a busy week, do you admit you don’t want to go because you are so tired, as you have been up three times every night changing your father’s bedsheets?

These are common situations faced by carers but can result in them feeling marginalised and worried that colleagues may view them as unhelpful, rude or ‘not a team player’. This can lead to them withdrawing and bottling up all the stress of juggling work and care until something breaks.

Recognising the signs that an employee is struggling because they are a carer is therefore vitally important. This is something that employees at UK mutual Nationwide are comfortable with, thanks to the work it has put in to understanding and supporting carers within its business.

Philip Farrelly, co-chair of Nationwide’s Working Carers Employee Network, says that 'sometimes the first thing a manager might notice is under-performance and it all comes out at the wrong times and the wrong place. We're trying to break that. We try to be supportive but also to be the voice of the employee. When I speak to senior leaders I am able to say, this is what it's like to be a working carer', says Philip.

Since 2016, Nationwide has been particularly focused supporting working carers. Philip says he wasn’t sure where it would lead but says the Society felt people wanted to talk about the issue. Having been a carer for his mother, Philip has personal experience of juggling work and caring responsibilities.

'Initially, it came on the back of a request from HR asking people to tell us their experience of caring for somebody while also working. We went to some focus groups and it became clear people wanted to talk about their experiences and to learn hints and tips on how to manage and cope. The network was spawned out of that and now, four years later, it’s grown and we have 500 members,' he explains.

He states that 'Nationwide is committed to working with the Society’s working carers to create an environment where they are empowered to balance their work and caring responsibilities effectively, while bringing their whole selves to work every day.'

Nationwide is only the second organisation in the UK to have received Ambassador level in the Employers for Carers scheme, which is awarded by Carers UK to businesses that have an inclusive workplace where carers are recognised, respected and supported.

While Philip describes the certification as a 'huge tick of approval', it did not come without hard work, active listening and a comprehensive strategy to support carers. As the UK’s largest building society Nationwide already has a good grounding in this area. While making profit is naturally core to its operation as a business, it is owned by its customers (members) rather than being answerable to faceless shareholders and therefore its mutual values are equally important.

'One of our key principles is what we call our ‘ethic of care’,' explains Tracy Conwell, employee relations director and deputy sponsor of the network. 'We care about the environment. We care about the way we service our members. We care about who we are and what we represent in the community. And we care about our people. And I think that's what really drives a lot of the work the network does and the way we position our policies particularly around our people.'

Of course, paying lip service to supporting working carers and delivering workable solutions are not the same thing, and it is in the latter that Nationwide is exemplary. The main sponsor of its working carers employee network is the Nationwide Leadership Team (NLT), its equivalent of the Executive Committee, so there is always a senior voice speaking up for carers. All eight employee networks are invited on a cyclical basis to meet the NLT. Phillip also has a regular dialogue with chairman David Roberts, a carer himself as well as a non-exec director at the NHS.

From tea time to me time

It is equally important to ensure that ‘caring’ is properly enshrined in policies that work for carers, and that these policies are communicated effectively to employees.

At Nationwide these include the Carers Passport, which is completed by employees with caring responsibilities and used to start conversations with their line manager about the support they need. The number of people who have taken this up is not recorded centrally, as Philip says: 'It's for the employee and their line manager, nobody else has to see it. It’s to help have a structured conversation around what they are asking for and what they need to support them in order to do their job. You discuss that with your manager and come to an arrangement.'

In 2019, Nationwide gave its employees who are carers the option of up to five extra days of paid leave as part of the Family Support Leave scheme. Employees can take up to 13 weeks unpaid leave to care for their families.

This is all part of a recent revamp of what Nationwide calls its ‘Time off’ policies, which are now found in three easy-to-find-and-navigate buckets on the intranet – time off for me, time off for others (which is where all the carers and family information comes in) and time off for the community.

The building society sends out regular newsletters, emails and leaflet desk drops informing employees about the different initiatives. It also holds a monthly ‘Time for tea, time for me’ drop in for two hours over lunchtime where people can get a cup of tea and talk about their experiences. The network team also tries to match people who mention a specific care responsibility with others who have that responsibility.

There are also real-life stories on their recruitment site, so applicants can see what it is like to be a working carer at Nationwide.

One challenge is reaching out to approximately 650 branches. Each branch is run a bit like an individual family so it is harder to organise centrally. 'We have struggled to get the time to go out there and visit,' admits Philip, 'but we use any opportunity, such as Carers Week, to publicise the 10 or 11 policies carers can use and to make caring visible through the use of photographs and real-life stories.'

To engage line managers at the various sites, such as administration centres or call centres, the team visits the sites. They run manager awareness sessions, where they explain what life is like as a carer and why they have the carer policies, stressing they are there to be used, not ignored.

Line managers are pivotal to the success of any scheme to support carers. But as Tracy says: 'We don't expect leaders and managers to be responsible for fixing stuff. Some of the conversations are not pleasant, but there's real encouragement in our organisation to face those conversations and to encourage leaders to understand the whole employee, not just the bit that shows up for work, because that's what makes the whole person. We encourage and train our leaders on how to listen and understand and to point people to the professional areas for solutions.'

Learning to be specific, not generic

One of the keys to success has been the strong working relationship between the network leaders and HR. The network team gets invited to review policies with HR, as do Nationwide’s other seven employee network groups, and to challenge their ongoing relevance. For example, it was after some work on sick leave by the Working Employees Carers Network within the care community and non-carers that the Family Support Policy was brought in.

Similarly during the pandemic, HR made some 80 policy amendments but, as Tracy says: 'We were being too generic. We were able, with the help and support of the carers network, to make some more specific and targeted communications to remind people that this applied to carers.'

Nowhere has this been more apparent than during lockdown. With key worker status, Nationwide could stay open and keep the economy going. The CEO sent out a video message to employees assuring them of full pay if they didn’t feel safe to attend work, despite the organisation not taking up the furlough scheme.

Tracy explains: 'For those caring for the vulnerable who felt unable to come to work they got full pay for the full 12 weeks. There was no quibbling. There was no proof required. Just tell us you can't come in, why you can't come in and we will pay you. The amount of trust we placed in their hands reaped huge benefits and we have kept over 95% of branches open throughout the pandemic.'

Both Tracy and Phillip say the biggest lesson, however, is to listen, encourage people to tell their stories and then channel those stories up the leadership chain. By publicising these stories and bringing them to life, everyone has permission to do the right thing by their team and their colleagues. Oh, and don’t define your people by the fact they are a carer, they are also good at their jobs!

Why become a caring organisation?

For an organisation like Nationwide, supporting caring is just the right thing to do. But there are business benefits other organisations should not ignore. Take sickness absence. When Nationwide measured this it quickly realised that people were taking sick days because they couldn’t see another way round their caring responsibilities. Once this was recognised and better support put in place, absence diminished. There was a direct correlation.

There is also the fact the number of people working and caring is growing. The majority of workers of the future will have caring responsibilities. So if you don't embrace it, you’re not going to have a successful and productive workforce in the first place.

Ultimately, it comes down to accepting and acknowledging the fact that people perform at their best when they feel they are treated well. As Philip says: 'When you are flexible, when you support somebody in their hour of need, they pay you back tenfold.'

And that, of course, makes for a sustainable business. Tracy says: 'We absolutely believe that a business with a human touch is what's going to make us successful. By encouraging people internally to behave in a way that is all about humanity, treating people as adults and with respect and understanding, that will be projected in the way we deal with our members. And this means we will be successful. It’s quite a straightforward business philosophy.'

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