Flexible working policies should meet the needs of carers

Nabs' Nicky Harris shares her personal experience of being a carer, plus tips for employers and employees facing a similar situation.

There’s an overused phrase that I see often in my social feeds: "Be kind – you never know what battles other people are fighting."

While I think it’s a brilliant mantra, it makes me a little sad. Isn’t being kind the absolute least we can all muster? It feels like a low bar to me. Especially when it comes to supporting people in our industry, like me, who are going through a different parenting experience.  

A year ago, at age four, my son Hudson was diagnosed with autism. It concluded a chapter of our family life that can only be described as utter chaos and confusion. 

My husband Rob and I had been through two years of appointments, visits to specialists and meetings with health visitors and support workers as we waded through the endless paperwork and assessments necessary to get Hudson diagnosed, understood and supported. Two years of being told by professionals that our son was "complex" and "very young" for a label, with well-meaning friends offering reassurance to us throughout that Hudson seemed "normal" and perhaps I was just a bit stressed.

Other people went further, saying that his behaviour was nothing that a bit of firm discipline and good parenting couldn’t solve. One health visitor even billed him as "attention-seeking" and "trying to get a rise out of Mum".

Parenting Hudson seemed to open up a lifetime of outside observation and comments of misunderstanding and judgement. We spent years questioning ourselves, comparing Hudson’s behaviour with others and dealing with a parenting experience that left us both exhausted.

We struggled to hold down our jobs, our marriage and our sanity while trying to get someone to take us seriously. And, of course, while trying to parent Hudson as best as we could for his happiness and well-being. 

But through all of this, work proved a lifeline for me. It’s something I’m good at and something I love.

In my role as director of strategy and development at Nabs, I’m helping to drive our future focus. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of our strategy, ensuring that Nabs can continue to understand our industry and evolve to meet its changing needs.

My experience of parenting Hudson has built my knowledge and understanding around neurodiversity and how to value a different way of thinking, as well as my resilience, patience and perspective.

I’m a better person today, both at work and at home, because of our son. I’m so happy I didn’t make a run for it when there were so many occasions when I thought it would be better to quit work. 

I’m fortunate enough to work for an organisation that’s actively accommodating my needs: Nabs developed a carers' policy with my situation and flexibility in mind. This should be the norm, but it isn’t.

When I consider the future of our industry and reflect on my personal situation, I wonder how many people have found it too tough to hang on in their roles. I think of those with caring responsibilities at home who couldn’t make it work. I think of the working parents, the carers, the disabled, the neurodivergent and the different thinkers who couldn’t make it work and I wonder when it’s going to change.

At last year’s brilliant #DiverseMinds conference, I met a lot of people who hadn’t had the support they needed to stay and thrive in our industry – so they were forced to end their careers. Others were barely hanging in there, juggling special-needs parenting with a career in advertising.

Those who left explained that they simply couldn’t find the help they needed from their bosses. The stress of juggling proved too much, especially for those who couldn’t find the appropriate childcare to nurture their child.

I’ve recently co-founded a group with a handful of parents across our industry who are living similar lives called Panda (Parents in Advertising for Neurodiversity Action). We chat on Slack and keep each other going, sharing tips and advice as well as our highs and lows. It’s a supportive group and we’re keen to grow and share our insights into what needs to change. 

As an industry, we’ve got to make flexibility work harder for carers. Can anyone begrudge heightened flexibility for someone whose job begins again as soon as they get home?

The answer, surely, must be no. So let’s work together to support carers in the brilliant and unique job they do.

If you’re an employer:

  • Allow informal, as well as formal, flexible working arrangements that respond to carers’ needs and personal circumstances – sometimes at very short notice. There are many different types of carers working in our industry, from parents to employees with ill or elderly dependents.
  • Implement a formal suite of policies for carers, so that both you and your employee can feel clear and assured about the support you can give to help them manage their home and working life. Allowing extra paid leave for meetings, consultant appointments and the unexpected and difficult days that crop up will ease the burden and the use of holiday allowances.
  • If the additional flexibility still doesn’t work, think more creatively and work with your employee to find an alternative role, if needs be, that may be more appropriate and less pressured for a period of time, rather than losing them altogether.
  • Check in with your employee, making sure they’ve got the emotional support they need – whether that’s through your organisation’s internal coaching sessions or Nabs’ free advice, coaching and masterclasses. 

If you’re a carer: 

  • Stop apologising. Remember that great work doesn’t always come out of a zen-like home life and eight hours' sleep, but it does happen when our individual circumstances are welcomed and supported. Speak up and ask for support.
  • Never give up. You’re setting the most amazing example to the next generation, showing that employers can be flexible, and working differently and being accommodated does not make your contribution to the industry any less valuable. 
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the person you’re caring for. Through Hudson, I’ve had the chance to talk about the brilliance of neurodivergence – the benefits of having a different way of thinking and looking at the world. It’s a privilege and something everyone needs more education and understanding about.
  • And, crucially, you must, must, must prioritise your own well-being, even if that means just half-an-hour a week taking time for yourself – anything that gives you some space and time away from work and away from your caring responsibilities. 

Nicky Harris is director of strategy and development at Nabs

Picture: Getty Images

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