Caring for ageing parents: flexible work and technology innovation

Sarah Goss

In Articles Posted

“I don’t know how you do it!”, is a remark I often hear when people learn that I am an executive at Ericsson, Founding Director of a start-up, and a mother and primary carer for two young kids.

But balancing work and family life goes beyond caring for children.  With our ageing population, the demand for people to provide care for a family member who is in old age or has a serious illness or disability has risen sharply.

Care to work differently

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2.7 million Australians are ‘informal carers’.  That’s one in eight Australians delivering an average of 13 hours of care per week to an older family member, or a family member in need due to disability or illness.  Put another way, Australia’s informal carers are working full-time 2 days a week delivering care.  Unpaid.  Meaning their work is not formally recognised for the $60.3 billion of economic value it contributes to our national economy.  Like me, even if you’re not an informal carer yourself, you know someone who is.  They are the backbone of our healthcare system and community.

The burden of providing these 1.9 billion hours of informal care every year is disproportionately shouldered by women.  More than two thirds of informal carers are women, with most aged between 55 and 64.  I use the word ‘burden’ because 44% of working-age primary carers have opted out of the workforce (ABS), and the prevalence of depression is 67% higher among these high-intensity carers than non-carers.

This over-reliance on informal carers and the personal toll it takes on them is in urgent need of redress.  There is no silver bullet, but employers can play a role to improve support for ‘working carers’.

More job-share, yeah yeah!

It can be very difficult for informal carers to get back into the workforce if they’ve opted out as nearly half of them do.  Working carers often seek part-time work to better enable them to balance work and care, but part-time jobs are hard to come by.  Informal carers are typically older workers, so without workplace flexibility and quality part-time work options for especially older employees, balancing paid work with caring for family members such as spouses and ageing parents can be extremely challenging.

The struggle to cope with managing work and care is not dissimilar to the experience I have had working whilst also caring for my young children.  I have been working 3 days a week in senior roles for almost 7 years, since I returned to work after having my first son. I have worked in a straight part-time role, and in a job-share.  Job-sharing is where a full-time position is held by two people, and I believe there is more potential for this model of job design to work particularly well for working carers.

These are the benefits I can attest to from being a primary carer and a job-sharer:

  • You can switch off on your non-work days.  Your job-share buddy is on the job, so you are able to focus on your caring responsibilities.
  • You have built in redundancy.  You can shuffle days between you or cover for one another if emergencies or extra-ordinary events arise.  There is another ‘you’, so you’re not a single point of weakness. You can rest assured knowing that your customers, staff, colleagues and stakeholders will not be let down.
  • You can still work in a senior role despite working part-time. Most senior roles are full-time, so job-sharing opens up access to these roles even though you work part-time.  You can continue to progress in your career with minimal disruption, if any.
  • You can satisfy other drivers and interests that you have that caring maybe doesn’t fulfil. Being able to work, and in a flexible and manageable way, can contribute to your overall wellbeing by giving you an outlet for professional pursuits and relationships with workmates.  It can also help alleviate the pressure and loneliness that many carers face.

When looking at ABS data (Table 37.1), it can be concluded that most jobs held by working carers are suited to job-share.  Furthermore, there could be specific promise in the wider availability of job-share opportunities for the 39% of working carers who are Managers or Professionals – some 522,000 Australians – to support them in continuing their career at a senior level.

Some tech with that too, please

I have friends who are informal carers who worry for their older family member, or feel guilty that they are not there ‘enough’.  More flexible work arrangements can certainly help working carers, but in combination with new advances in smart technology, carers can be reassured of the welfare of their loved one even when they’re not physically present with them.

Umps Health provides one such smart technology solution.  It offers a wellbeing detection system so that as older people living at home alone use their everyday appliances, usage can be tracked to detect any abnormalities in routine and then raise alerts to carers.

And for informal carers searching for ‘career worthy’ part-time, job-share or other types of flexible roles, you can be matched with employers in the connected job market through online marketplaces such as Beam Australia and OneJob TwoMinds.

A better way

Flexible work arrangements such as part-time hours and job-sharing can encourage better physical, mental and financial health for informal carers.  Smart technology can empower them with information about their older loved one and provide greater peace of mind.  Given our population is ageing and the demand on informal carers is at breaking point, it is clear Australia needs to look at these and other ideas for a better way of care.

If you are a working carer and would like to share your story, I would love to hear from you.

Sarah Goss works in a part-time executive role as Head of Innovation at Ericsson Australia & New Zealand and is also Founding Director at HealthTech start-up, Umps Health.

Twitter: @SarahGossAU


Leave a Comment