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Work and Caring
By union and employment expert Sharon Elliott
Image by Marten Bjork

Work doesn’t eliminate caring responsibilities. What many of us face is a juggling act, first often centered on children and later in life on elderly parents (in some cases life may call on us to deal with both generations simultaneously).

When our parents need us, we may try our best to meet the demands independent of our employer, calling on favors from friends and family, but the truth is, that help may not be enough when it comes to the complex or consistent needs our parents may have. If you’re employed you may need to ask for help from your employer.

Your rights
Leave for family emergencies

It’s worth mentioning first off that there is a statutory right to reasonable unpaid time off to deal with a family emergency. You don’t need to work for your employer for a minimum period of time to access this right; it exists from day one. To qualify the emergency must relate to parents, children, a spouse or partner and relate to sickness, accident, criminal injury or death, funerals, the absence of a career for the family member or a serious issue at a child’s school. The need to take time off to deal with a family emergency should be communicated to the employer; employees are entitled not to suffer detriment for seeking to take advantage of a statutory right.

Leave for family emergencies

The right to request flexible working applies to all employees provided they have at least six months’ continuous service. (Staff no long need to be careers to request flexible working, but the legal right originated there). It’s important to stress that this law gives you the right to make the request; employers are not obliged to agree but they are obliged to listen to the case you put. That’s why you should prepare your case carefully to maximize the chances of success. Research your employer’s treatment of others in a similar situation. Has a precedent been set which you could rely on?

You could ask for a change to working hours, or to the times you work each day/week, or to work some, or all, of your time from home. Any changes the employer agrees to will be permanent unless otherwise stated. Some formalities apply to the right to request flexible working: it must be in writing, state that it is a statutory request to work flexibly, specify the change requested and the start date, indicate what the impact of the request will have on the employer and how the employer might deal with this and confirm that no other request for flexible working has been made in the previous 12 months.

Your employer is obliged to respond to such requests within three months, allowing for an appeal. The decision should be communicated in writing after discussions about the request have been held, either in person, or via another acceptable means of communication. The employer can cite business reasons to justify any rejection of a request to work flexibly - for instance, extra costs, or worries about a possible negative impact on your ability to do your job. However whatever business reasons are given, your employer must explain why their reasons work against your request for flexible working.

What does your staff handbook say?

As you investigate the possibilities for help from your employer, be sure to check out the Staff Handbook, or equivalent document, which lays out the company’s approach to staffing matters and staff welfare. The document should refer to statutory rights but your employer may well enhance these. You may find, too, some useful statements or commitments which you should draw to the attention of the manager hearing your application for flexible working. As you prepare your case, consider how the flexibility you’re requesting could be accommodated by your team. Be ready with the answers to the questions they’re likely to pose to demonstrate how practical your request is.

What does flexible working look like?

Flexible working could mean part-time working, working from home, extended day working or even a sabbatical depending on the nature of the caring responsibilities you need to fulfil. Don’t rule anything out including the possibility of a trial; think creatively about the flexibility you need as you seek to maintain your commitment to your employer.

Sources of help

Check out the government site as well as the conciliation service ACAS

Citizens Advice and Age UK may also be able to help. If your employer is large, there may be internal groups you could consult. And you could also speak confidentially to Human Resources or to your union representative. You may also want to consider your legal rights. In some cases disputes can be taken to an Employment Tribunal - but strict time limits apply. Check out

Sharon Elliott is former Communications Officer at the BECTU Union
Remenber, employment regulations can be subject to change at short notice. Always check the .gov website for updates.

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