At some time in everyone’s working life, they can expect to become a carer – even if it is only for a short time.

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It is not until you experience the very real challenges of combining full-time or part-time work and caring for a highly dependent person, you realise the intense pressures involved.

So whether you are a manager, a work colleague or a person with a family member who may at some future time need your care and support, it pays to understand what options are available in terms of flexible workplace arrangements.

If you suddenly become a carer, you may need to be able to leave early or come in late, for example so you can give an elder their medication, or take them to a doctor's appointment. You may need to unexpectedly take short-term leave if your partner has a major accident or injury and needs an intensive period of care. You may need to take long-term leave if a child develops a terminal or life-threatening illness and you need to support them on a continuing basis.

Does your workplace have a carer workplace policy that outlines what flexible work arrangements might be possible in these scenarios? If not, can you suggest to HR staff or your manager that one be developed?

Flexible workplace policies benefit everyone – not just working carers – and it is good to enlist the support of all your colleagues. Most workers would like to have more flexible work options and would use them if there were no negative career consequences. 

While workplace flexibility has been shown to benefit both workers and employers, many employees feel they simply cannot request changes regarding when and where they work without fear of stigma.

Research shows that employees who seek flexible work arrangements are more likely to receive lower job evaluations than those with more traditional work arrangements. And when low-income workers seek workplace flexibility, or place any kind of restrictions on their availability for work, they report they are likely to be given fewer total work hours.

This is not acceptable in the 21st century. Countries around the world have implemented flexible work laws with great success to address this problem, and Australia is one of them.

By requiring employers to consider alternative work arrangements through a deliberate and fair process, these laws have addressed unequal access to, and ad-hoc administration of, flexible work arrangements and expanded opportunity for employees to have more control over when and where their work is completed.

Who can request flexible working arrangements?

Employees who have worked with the same employer for at least 12 months can request flexible working arrangements if they:

  • are the parent, or have responsibility for the care, of a child who is school aged or younger
  • are a carer (under the Carer Recognition Act 2010)
  • have a disability
  • are 55 or older
  • are experiencing family or domestic violence, or
  • provide care or support to a member of their household or immediate family who requires care and support because of family or domestic violence.

Even though the law is on your side, your employer may not immediately understand your needs as a carer and it is important to present a good business case for flexible working arrangements.

A formal request should be made in writing. You might want to consider making an appointment to have a chat with your employer, or someone from HR before you do this.

It is a good idea to be aware of your legal rights as a carer at work, which are protected by Australia’s National Employment Standards (NES), as well as Commonwealth and State anti-discrimination laws.

The NES set the minimum conditions of your employment and outline the conditions of carer’s leave and flexible working arrangements. They also prevent your employer from discriminating against you because of your caring responsibilities – you should have equitable treatment and the same opportunities as all other employees. 

Ideally, you and your employer would be able to find a solution that meets both of your needs. If your request is refused and you are not satisfied with the reasons provided, the Fair Work Commission may be able to assist you. The Fair Work Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman cannot, however, force an employer to agree to your request. 

Remember there should be no adverse outcomes for you making a request for flexible work arrangement. If this occurs, seek advice straight away from the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94, or contact your union if you are a member.

There are many resources on negotiating flexible work at the Fair Work website:

https://www.fairwork.gov.au/employee-entitlements/flexibility-in-the-workplace