‘No one should have to choose between work and love’

Mary Bright, Head of Social Affairs and Age Special Advisor at Phoenix Group, talks to workingwise.co.uk about why supporting carers matters.

View of older hands holding the hands of a lady lying down depicting care


Mary Bright knows from personal experience what it’s like to be a carer and that fuels her role as Head of Social Affairs and Age Special Advisor at Phoenix Group.

Research for Carers UK shows that, between 2010-2020, people aged 46-65 were the largest age group to become unpaid carers. 41% of people who became unpaid carers were in this age group. Many are forced to reduce their hours or to leave work as a result. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report estimated that unpaid carers experience an average pay penalty of £487 per month, or nearly £6,000 per year, which increases the longer they are doing unpaid care. It also cited figures showing that five years after starting care work, over 30% of those who were in paid work before providing 20 or more hours of unpaid care per week are no longer in paid work.

Bright says: “No one should have to choose between work and love. They will pick love, but at what cost?”

Personal experience

She has experienced life as an unpaid carer herself, helping to look after her father who had Parkinson’s and dementia until he died 10 years ago. While her mum was the main carer, Bright would provide respite at weekends, driving three or four hours to help. She describes the process as mentally and emotionally exhausting. Her father died two years after her brother and she says her boss at the time was sympathetic and did what he could, but there was no policy in place. It was just luck that she had a good boss. She wants to change that.

Gradually she started talking to others about her experience – “coming out as a carer” – and she discovered carers were everywhere, including on executive teams, all “juggling desperately”.

She says many don’t identify as carers because they don’t live with the person they are caring for, or they do it out of love. “They say things like I’m just helping mum with things at the weekends. But what they are doing is using their time they would otherwise have off work to do things that they might not choose to do, like wiping their dad’s bottom,” she says.

She compares the kind of support available for elder care with childcare, saying that society needs to embrace one as much as it has the other. “We would never say come back to work a week after having a baby, but we say that to someone who has often gone through a long pre-bereavement journey and then loss and we don’t think about it in the same way,” she says.

She adds that, whilst the majority of children will generally grow up and become independent, many parents are also carers, although it can take them a long time to recognise that dual caring role. Bright has a daughter with autism and says it took her until her daughter’s teenage years when things became ever harder to recognise her dual role as parent and carer.

Carer-related policies

It is for all these reasons that Phoenix Group has put a lot into its policies for carers and not just specific policies, but also its bereavement policy – recognising that grief doesn’t just happen straight after loss but comes in waves over a much longer period – and its support for flexible working. Those policies have recently won it the Working Families Best Practice Award for Best for Carers & Eldercare.

Bright says Phoenix aspires to be a great employer by using its size and commitment to social responsibility to do the right thing for its employees, by spreading that best practice to others and by working with the Government to promote a base level of rights. She says the recently passed Private Member’s Bill on carer’s leave which entitles carers to up to five days unpaid leave is a start. “We have to start with one step and then take the next one,” she says. As such Phoenix Group has passionately supported the Bill and is working with partners who have similar values when it comes to supporting carers to encourage the majority of FTSE companies to provide paid carers leave in the belief that will eventually become the norm for all employers. She says many company leaders will be or will have been a carer. “You have to unlock that human element,” she says.

Bright states that Phoenix’s care leave policy – it offers all employees 10 days of paid and five days of unpaid carers leave per year – helps people to come out as carers and raises awareness of the problems they may face. She adds that the evidence shows carers – defined as having someone who depends on you for care – tend to use carers leave very preciously. Phoenix has 600 people in its carers network – around 10% of the workforce, although it estimates around 20% are carers. Some will only be carers for a short time, for instance, and may therefore not join support groups. The carers network is not necessarily about events, says Bright, but about being able to message someone and say you’ve had a bad weekend. “It’s about being able to be honest about what you are experiencing,” she states.

Phoenix also has a carers passport so people who move within the company don’t have to explain their needs as a carer each time they take on a new role. They also allow employees to take up to six months off work unpaid with a right to return to work. The aim is to avoid carers feeling they have no option but to leave work when their caring needs get too much.

Care support

In addition, employees have access to Care Sourcer, a service which offers carers one to one support and helps them to navigate what Bright calls “the spaghetti soup of formal care funding and sourcing”. That includes sourcing care homes and in-home carers.  Phoenix is also a member of the Employers for Carers forum.

Bright says its carer policies are a key recruitment and retention tool. She cites a young person who cares for his younger brother after his parents died. He felt he would not be able to work, but has been working as an apprentice in Phoenix’s IT department. Those who have benefited from the policies are ‘incredibly loyal’, says Bright. She includes herself in their number. She recently took advantage of the company’s flexible working policy and reduced from full-time hours to three days a week to give her time to support her children through a stressful period. “I can’t afford to do it all the time, but doing it temporarily makes all the difference,” she says.

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