Unpaid carers: a wider workforce awaiting your call

There are almost 7 million unpaid carers in the UK. According to Carers Trust the economic value of the contribution made by carers in the UK is £119 billion a year. Adopting a modern twist to the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who guards the guards?) I want to ask who cares for the carers?

In England, the new report Understanding the wider public health workforce estimates we have 20 million people whose work helps improve public health and wellbeing. Of these, five million are unpaid carers. The report, published by Centre for Workforce Intelligence (CfWI) on 21st July, was commissioned by the Department of Health, Health Education England and Public Health England.

This wider workforce includes “any individual who is not a specialist or practitioner in public health but has the opportunity or ability to positively impact health and wellbeing through their paid or unpaid work”. The report suggests that there are approximately 5 million people providing unpaid care and support to family or friends due to disability, illness or poor mental health.

From a number of case studies featured in the report, CfWI identifies a number of themes contributing to effective health and wellbeing services. These include:

  • Local strategic leadership
  • Partnership working across sectors
  • Working in local communities
  • Training for individuals
  • Health improvement.

If you were designing systems for supporting carers in the valuable work they do in our society, wouldn’t you plan to include these elements? I would say you only need to stick to the text of CfWI’s report, for example (my emphasis):

What has been identified here is that there are potentially millions of people who work in occupations that have the opportunity to positively influence health and wellbeing through their work. Five million people provide unpaid care and support to family and friends, further taking pressure off the health and social care systems. While we have made some attempt to identify those occupations that are currently actively involved in public health, the scale of the workforce identified highlights the enormous potential for thinking outside the core public health workforce for public health service delivery.

CfWI describes some groups in this wider workforce as being more actively engaged than others and, as the report points out, it makes sense for those planning health and wellbeing services to work with these groups first (or most immediately, or most intensively). In this context, CfWI speaks of “early adopters” and in this category includes “…voluntary sectors including unpaid carers”.

In planning to work with early adopters, CfWI suggests three priorities for planning your engagement with them:

  1. System leadership
  2. Development and training interventions
  3. Ongoing research and evidence-gathering (well, CfWI is a research company).

It is easy to fall into a mind-set of only thinking about paid workforce engagement, but I want you to think about the enormous potential and power to do good for communities’ health and wellbeing residing in this tremendous volunteer army of unpaid carers. As the CfWI report states:” We recognise that these suggestions are easiest to implement for the paid workforce, however there are around 5 million unpaid carers in England and these should not be forgotten.

So policy recommendations like those in Rethinking the Public Health Workforce, published by the Royal Society for Public Health the same day as the CfWI report – do please apply them to unpaid carers as well as paid workers. Recommendations such as “Redefine and communicate who can be involved in supporting the public’s health” apply just as forcefully in the case of the former as the latter.

Carers UK published a carers’ manifesto for the 2015 Election. Alongside the calls on living costs and income, health and social care services and employment support is a call for “recognition, advice, information and support”. I would love to see some public health system leadership that incorporates planning for development and training of carers:

  • Recognise the enormous contribution to health and wellbeing carers make
  • Ensure they receive advice and information when, where and how they need it and
  • Support carers to make a difference for the better in their own lives as well as the lives of those for whom they care.
by David Kidney