Last week, Carers NI and the Women’s Regional Consortium launched new research on women, unpaid caring and employment in NI.

Their report “Career or Care: Women, Unpaid Caring and Employment in Northern Ireland” found that 1 in 3 women who provide unpaid care for sick or disabled family members or friends have had to give up their job because of the pressures of caring.

A further 28% have been forced to cut their working hours, with nearly three-quarters (73%) losing out on between £500 and over £1,500 per month in wages because of challenges juggling employment with their loved one’s care needs. Additionally, 1 in 6 have taken on less qualified jobs or turned down promotions because of caring responsibilities.

Local women say that employer support for staff with unpaid caring roles is a ‘postcode lottery’ and that a lack of workplace rights and reliable community care services can make it impossible for them to stay in their jobs while caring. Trying to juggle the two roles often causes burnout, ill-health and financial strain.

Having to give up work or cut hours due to unpaid caring has significant consequences for women’s health, wellbeing and finances. It was a big contributor to experiences of poverty even before the cost-of-living crisis made things worse for many carers.

Deborah McAllister spoke about the impact caring has played on her life and career. She cares for her mum, who has dementia, as well as her daughter, who has complex needs, and she had to give up a 35-year career in nursing because of the impact of unpaid caring.

“I’ve been caring for different family members for 15 years and look after my mum and daughter around-the-clock. There is no rest from it for me, and trying to go to work, with little support or understanding from my employer, was really difficult. It made me become unwell.

Mum was sick one day and I asked for time off to take her to the GP. My boss just said, ‘you’ll have to take an annual leave day’. That was it. There was supposed to be a carer policy in place, but I was denied the day off that I needed. From management down, they rarely asked about what I was dealing with or what was going on in my world. During my last two years at work, no one ever asked how I was doing. There was no support for me as a working carer. I walked out one day and thought, ‘I just can’t do this anymore’.

It is very difficult being an unpaid carer and working at the same time. I have been diagnosed with compassion fatigue, PTSD symptoms, and am physically unwell, but I didn’t ever intend to leave my job. If I’d got the mental health support I needed, I might not have had to. I had to give up my career and now I have no idea what I’m going to do. I wouldn’t give up my mum or daughter for the world, I just needed a little bit of support for me.”

Deborah McAllister, unpaid carer from Larne

The research report calls for a new day-one right to flexible working and dedicated carers leave, as well as better community care, education and childcare services, to help women balance their caring responsibilities with employment.

At the launch last week, Cathy Magowan, who cares for her mum, told her story of retiring early from work because trying to juggle full time employment and caring was having severe consequences for her health.

“It takes a toll. My health started to decline.”

Cathy Magowan, unpaid carer

Carers NI and the Women’s Regional Consortium are calling on Stormont and employers to deliver real change to support women with caring roles so that they can stay in work if they want to.

  • Carers need Legal rights to carer’s leave and flexible working from the first day of employment
  • Fit-for-purpose social care services
  • Affordable childcare
  • Reform of the Carer’s Allowance earnings cap

“Too many women across Northern Ireland are being forced out of the labour market because of a postcode lottery of support for their caring roles. This isn’t just robbing them of the careers they cherish and the income they rely on to make ends meet, but also denies Northern Ireland’s economy a skilled and experienced workforce with a lot to offer.

It isn’t enough to leave the support working carers need to the discretion of employers, so we need new rights, enshrined in law, that will give them flexible working options and time off for unpaid caring. Robust community care and childcare systems are also vital. Delivering all of these reforms should be a priority for Stormont if it is serious about delivering equality for women with caring roles and growing the local economy.”

Angela Phillips, of Carers NI, and Siobhán Harding, of the Women’s Regional Consortium, co-authors of the research

Read the full report “Career or Care: Women, Unpaid Caring and Employment in Northern Ireland”

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