Could employers provide social care?

David Kingman reports on the new development that a number of companies have begun providing social care packages for their employees, and wonders if this could help solve our national care crisisElderly Women

Britain’s system for providing adult social care is widely acknowledged to be in crisis, as the ageing population and the growing number of people who are living longer with mental and physical disabilities are placing ever-increasing demand on it at a time when government funding is under more strain than ever.

Too many individuals have not saved up enough money to pay for their care needs, while the government is cutting back on the amount that it spends. Could employers do something to help the next generation as they grapple with the mess this has created?

“Savers aren’t saving for it”

As Dr Ros Altman, the former director of the Saga Group (a company which specialises in marketing products to the over-50s), has argued, the problem with care is that “savers aren’t saving for it, families aren’t planning for it, local authorities have next to no budget for it, and Government seems blind to it.”

The government is trying to reform the current system by capping how much individuals will be expected to pay towards the cost of their own care, but research from the Strategic Society Centre has shown that this policy is riddled with loopholes and exceptions which will make the “cap” virtually meaningless.

Although today’s young adults are clearly too young to need old-age care at the moment, the chaotic nature of the current system harms them in two important ways. Firstly, it means they will have to take on more responsibility for caring for their older relatives as they age, which makes what is likely to already be a difficult situation for them even harder. Secondly, if the flaws in the current system are not addressed then they will still be there when today’s young people do eventually start needing old-age care themselves, potentially storing up a huge problem for the future.

This is where employer-provided old-age care could come into the picture. The BBC recently published an online article about the growing number of employers who are offering “eldercare” packages to their staff.

According to the article, around 70 employers – including Sainsbury’s, British Gas and NHS England – have now become members of a group called Employers for Carers, which tries to galvanise its members to do more to help their members of staff who have responsibilities outside work acting as carers. According to this organisation, 1 in 7 adults now has a caring responsibility towards someone, and they make the often-overlooked point that having to deal with elderly parents is more of a universal experience than having to look after children (because everyone is born with parents but not everyone has children).

The BBC article highlights the case study of a woman who suddenly had to start being a long-distance carer for her elderly mother, and was able to access support through an eldercare package provided by her employer, which entitled her to up to 20 days assistance a year from a professional care worker. Such arrangements are relatively uncommon at the moment, but Helena Herklots, chief executive of Carers UK, a charity, believes they will start to become more widespread in the future:

“It is a near-universal experience for all of us. At some point in our lives most of us will either become carers or need care. It is beginning to be a challenge as strong as the childcare issue maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It’s that important for business, but not all businesses have woken up to that.”

Good for the bottom line?

The big argument in favour of employer-provided eldercare is that it will improve the productivity of workers if they can devote more time and energy to their jobs without having to worry about their elderly relatives who need care, ultimately helping the bottom line.

Similar arguments have been used for a long time to support the provision of employer-provided childcare, and research has shown that this has such a positive impact on women’s ability to work that the government provides quite generous tax relief to firms in return for providing it.

These eldercare schemes are still in their infancy, but it would not be too surprising one day if major employers started offering the carers among their staff much more generous packages – or possibly even subsidised places at care homes – as a way of easing the load they have to bear. Perhaps some major employers could even offer a kind of care insurance scheme to their younger staff that they could pay into during their careers as a way of pooling the risk that they might one day need long-term care themselves.

Of course, many employers – especially the small firms that employ the majority of Britain’s workers – probably couldn’t afford to provide their staff with eldercare, so this wouldn’t be a practical solution for everyone. However, with Britain’s population ageing rapidly over the years ahead, business could have a vital role to play in helping young workers deal with the effects of the care crisis.