EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Case Study: Care-related Supports – BT, UK


United Kingdom
Organisation Size: 
Large (250+)
Private sector
Initiative Types: 
Work adjustmentsHealth/wellbeingCare-related supportsawareness raisingCo-operation with external agencies

Company / organisation name


Initiative name

Company support for working carers

About the company / organisation

Operating in more than 170 countries, BT is one of the world’s leading providers of communications solutions and services. Their main activities include networked IT services; local, national and international telecommunications services; and higher value broadband and internet products and services. BT is made up of four principal lines of business: BT Global Service manages services and provides solutions to multi-site organisations worldwide; Openreach owns, maintains and develops the access network that links homes and businesses to the networks of Britain's communications providers; BT Retail serves business and residential customers and is the prime channel to market for other BT businesses; and BT Wholesale runs BT’s networks and provides network services and solutions to other communication companies. BT’s revenue in 2009 was £21.4 billion. The company employs 97,798 people worldwide, 79,832 of whom are employed in the UK. Some employees work part-time, so their worldwide workforce is the equivalent of 96,059 full-time people and their UK workforce the equivalent of 78,218, full-time employees.

Technology is a key enabler for BT, facilitating the approach that work is what you do, not where you go. Communication tools, such as conferencing and instant messenger, allow immediate communication wherever an employee is working, be that on a train, at home, in a different office. The technology also allows different types of working structures; for example, a team could be geographically displaced in Hastings, Stourbridge, Edinburgh and London, but still work together.

Trust is an integral part of BT’s approach. Performance is managed through clear objectives for each employee and agreed outcomes, rather than presenteeism.

The initiative

BT recognises and respects their employee’s desire to perform well at work and to meet their personal responsibilities, such as informal caring. BT’s vision on supporting carers, ‘Helping You Care’, outlines their approach to carers. The policy statement recognises the huge commitment and responsibilities borne by employees with informal care responsibilities. BT’s working definition of a carer is:

‘an employee with caring responsibilities which have an impact on their working life. These employees will be responsible for the care and support of a disabled, elderly or sick partner, relative or friend who is unable to care for themselves’.

BT has a wide ranging toolkit of support already in place for working carers. This comprises factsheets with the following titles: ‘New to Caring’; ‘Coming out of Hospital’; ‘Managing Carers - Top Tips for Line Managers Factsheet’; and ‘Carer’s Top Ten Questions and Answers’. It also includes a ‘carer’s passport’, a class in coping with dementia, a booklet called ‘Helping You Care’, and a care fees advice service provided by the organisation, Help the Aged.

The BT carer’s passport can be completed by any BT employee with caring responsibilities that they believe could impact on their ability to work, currently or in the future. The BT carer’s passport describes the nature of the caring responsibilities and adjustments that the individual might need to make. It also outlines action to take if they need to leave work suddenly, together with agreed communication between them and BT if they are unable to attend work.

The factsheets outlined above provide guidance on practical tasks relating to caring, such as where to apply for carer’s allowances. Critically, they also describe opportunities to articulate any issues arising from caring, such as mental health problems.

As part of their continuous re-assessment of approaches to carers, BT's People and Policy Division held a ‘knowledge call’. This was a teleconference for carers in BT to find out what works for them in their working life. It turned out that many working carers at BT did not associate themselves and their caring responsibilities with the word ‘carer’, as it has particular connotations. Moreover, the term does not have a great deal of resonance for some, as their perceptions may be that they are, for example, a ‘wife’ rather than a carer for their husband.

Thus, BT provides employees with opportunities to discuss their caring responsibilities in a number of ways. The carers’ network in BT has over 200 members and was initiated during Carers Week in 2009. BT used Carers Week 2010 to raise awareness about people caring for someone with dementia. BT people were given the opportunity to join a conference call hosted by a national dementia expert.

Another initiative has been the collaboration between BT and Omega to deliver Caring with Confidence. This is a free programme funded by the Department of Health to support people with caring responsibilities. The programme is part of the UK governments’ National Carers’ Strategy.

Line managers are perceived as one of the lynchpins behind a working carer-friendly culture. They are given the authority to negotiate any flexible working arrangements, or authorise short-term care arrangements, without deferring to more senior managers.

Flexible working is available to all employees within BT and includes part-time working, compressed hours, term-time working, annualised hours, unpaid leave, remote working and home-working. Of course, the availability of flexible options depends on the nature of a job. For example, call centre agents might have less control over when and where their work is done. They are still able to apply for an ‘exceptional change of hours’ where efforts can be made to accommodate changes in the employee’s circumstance. Line managers are empowered to work with carers to agree, on a case by case basis, how to fit carer’s needs with current and future working arrangements.

BT has 10,000 home-workers, based fully or (which is the usual case) partly at home. Home-working can allow employees to better manage their caring responsibilities as they benefit from additional flexibility within their working responsibilities to look after their children, or family members who are ill or have a disability.

Technology and its developments are an integral part of BT’s approach, and tools such as teleconferencing can be used by all employees, including carers.

Applying for a more flexible working arrangement is a formal procedure. However, as a matter of principle, the line manager has the autonomy and flexibility to negotiate different working arrangements with carers.

Rationale and background of the initiative

There has been both a philosophical approach to working carers and a carer’s policy in place in BT for the past 10 years. The company’s Director of People and Policy, Caroline Waters OBE, is also Chair of Employers for Carers. This is a UK lobby group dedicated to promoting the interests of employers who want to better support working carers. Many carers struggle to cope and, according to the Carers UK, one in five people actually give up work to care, often leading to real financial hardship. This is a big loss for employers, as caring can strike people at any age or any stage in their career. This includes the most skilled and experienced employees in whom substantial investments will almost certainly have been made. Supporting carers is not only a critical issue for families, it is also critical for business. There is no doubt that business needs to respond to the stark demographic reality of a rapidly increasing number of working carers. Forward thinking employers are keen to address this issue and lead by example. The body, Employers for Carers, was launched in January 2009. It is chaired by BT, supported by the specialist knowledge of Carers UK, Employers for Carers. It now has over 45 member organisations representing over half a million employees who believe that supporting carers is good business.

In 2010, Employers for Carers signed a memorandum of understanding with various government departments. This sets up a new model for action-based collaboration between employers and government on key social and labour market issues. It is a best practice model that aims to create economic opportunity out of demographic challenge. It can be adopted by other governments around the world to tackle this global workforce issue.

Caroline Waters carried out some innovative work within BT on issues affecting women. Within this, women’s particular caring responsibilities (for children and other family members) and related policy were explored. This led to the development of a women’s network and an executive women’s network. Other networks within BT include the ethnic minority network; networks for Asian, Muslim and Christian communities; a network for assistants; Able2 –a network for people with disabilities; and Kaleidoscope – a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender network.

In relation to caring, it is necessary to envision the changing demographics of the 21st century. Currently, 6 million people in the UK are estimated to be carers. Alongside this, companies need to retain their highly trained employees. The tension between wanting, and perhaps needing, to care for somebody, and developing a career path, is at the heart of BT’s policy for carers. It must be recognised that new policies within large organisations can take a significant amount of time and resources to translate into realities; as we have already seen, BT began to consider the issue of working carers over 10 years ago.

One in seven BT employees is a carer, and this figure will continue to rise. BT’s policy statement on the issue recognises that work and caring responsibilities can ‘live’ together; a working carer not have to make a choice between caring and work. Carers’ needs have been found to be generally modest, and they do not always mean that employees have to choose between caring and work; being able to care can also mean that an individual can be productive at work as well. This attitude is part of BT’s general approach to their employees; work-life balance is seen as an integral component of productivity. Flexibility is at the core of BT’s approach to caring; whatever the individual’s circumstances, each employee should be managed according to their particular needs, balanced against the needs of the business.

Work–life balance and approaches to diversity are important to BT. The company is an equal opportunities employer, meaning everyone should have the same opportunities for employment and promotion based on their ability, qualifications and suitability for the work in question. No job applicant or employee receives less favourable treatment because of factors such as their race, sex, religion/belief, disability, marital or civil partnership status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or caring responsibilities. Where possible, they will also take positive measures to recruit people from underrepresented minority groups.

BT is a ‘two ticks employer’. This refers to a scheme run by the UK government for companies committed to employing people with disabilities. This commitment is shown by actively encouraging the recruitment, development and retention of people with disabilities. Participating companies also guarantee an interview to applicants with a disability who meet the minimum criteria for any vacancy.

Results and assessment

BT’s approach to addressing the needs of working carers is part of the company’s commitment to flexible working in general. Today, seven out of ten BT employees use some form of flexible working arrangement, such as limited or annualised hours or a compressed week.

An internal evaluation came to the conclusion that the implementation of a whole range of options for flexible working has boosted productivity by as much as 21%; this is the equivalent of €6-7million per year. Moreover, stress-related absence has been reduced by 26%, which is directly attributed to the increased take-up of flexible working.

BT currently conducts an annual census of work–life balance issues, as well as a quarterly employee engagement survey. The latter includes a question on work–life balance.

Issues, challenges and lessons learned

The challenge, as identified by BT, is to create a culture where carers can balance their work with their caring responsibilities. Additionally, line managers need to have autonomy in helping working carers to realise different ways of working, rather than feeling that they have to ask permission from their manager.

Setting the right environment means that smart goals are set for employees. Measuring outcomes by performance is essential. BT’s appraisal system consists of annual appraisals, with quarterly appraisals to be introduced soon.

The definition and translation of ‘carers’ can be problematic: a definition used in the UK may not work elsewhere. For example, in the USA, the term ‘care-giver’ is used instead; this signifies the carer is actively giving care, as opposed to the more passive connotations of ‘carer’. Such differences illustrate that the translation of cultural ideas can be challenging and BT as a global organisation needs to ensure that their carers agenda translates accurately in other countries where they operate.

Based on its experiences, BT makes a number of recommendations for other companies committed to supporting working carers. Firstly, it recommends that companies should develop an overall policy statement that is sensible and reflects current societal concerns around caring, such as financial issues and, working practices. The caring legislation within the UK is relatively well developed. Moreover, a variety of government websites and charities can help carers access financial support and networks. Organisations should start by including these within their carer’s policy.

This leads to their second recommendation, which is that companies should formulate a policy around carers. It is crucially important that this policy works for both the company and for carers within the company. For example, it should define and implement the different types of support for carers within an organisation.

BT also recommends companies to create a ‘carers’ network’. This could be used by carers to share knowledge and experiences, to influence policy and to gain valuable insights into the practical application of company policy. It could also help people to communicate with the right people.

Other guidelines include:

  • give line managers autonomy and training on managing carers within their team;
  • organise regular consultations with carers in the organisation;
  • provide websites targeting working carers that are easily accessible with relevant information;
  • do not pigeon hole carers into types, as they are make up a heterogeneous group, with varying needs;
  • offer practical tips and advice for carers.
  • create good communication and trust within the organisation;
  • demonstrate trust – in particular between the carer and their line manager; and
  • flexibility – react to carers; needs there and then, and don’t get bogged down in procedures and form filling.

In the UK, legislation currently demands a qualifying period before employees can ask for care leave or flexible working arrangements. BT suggests there is no need for this. Their experience shows that waiting to qualify for care leave or flexible working puts unnecessary strain upon the employee to work ‘normally’ whilst already undertaking extended caring responsibilities; this can lead to the loss of a highly valued employee, which could have easily been avoided.


Case study author:

  • Dr Paula Byrne, Division Primary Care, University Liverpool


  • Helen Chipchase (BT), Manager People and Policy, Disability and Carers, Works for Caroline Waters Director People and Policy.

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