Our Chief Executive Helen Walker shares her reflection on her five-year anniversary since joining Carers UK and the challenges and achievements for the past years; from working through Covid-19 to influencing new legislation.
Anniversaries are often a time for reflection – work anniversaries in particular prompt thoughts of achievements, challenges and future plans both individually and organisationally. Next week for me marks five years at Carers UK. It feels like yesterday and I suspect for many Chief Executives they feel they have been at their organisations for a far shorter period because of the pandemic. The two years or so of firefighting – overnight homeworking, transitioning to hybrid, striving to be the voice of carers when they were caring behind closed doors with virtually no support, was extraordinary and so doesn’t really feel part of my ‘proper tenure’.
My reflection really started when I was inducting a new staff member earlier this week – talking about the challenge of absorbing huge amounts of information and statistics – worrying that you might never have them firmly in your head when you needed them. We all have that feeling whatever level we are at when we start a new role and there are pivotal moments where you realise that suddenly you do feel absolutely confident in your knowledge and understanding of ‘your cause’. Just this week after a super stressful London tube journey I arrived late and flustered for three back to back down the line television interviews, but in spite of the stress I felt entirely comfortable and confident in what I was talking about and settled instantly into them striving to be the voice of those who have none – I’m not saying it’s taken me five years to feel that way and one should never be complacent and not prepare, it’s just that now I feel more able to articulate the extraordinary challenges that face carers right now and at times be angry on their behalf.
Life has changed fundamentally for all of us over the past five years – pandemic aside, we have seen an extraordinary and tumultuous period in Westminster we have segued seamlessly into a cost of living crisis. All of these affect the people you support as well as your staff team and indeed the financial viability of many charities as we struggle to meet the increased need with the decrease in donations. This has changed the way we manage, the way we deliver and the way we support staff and beneficiaries.
But enough of looking backwards – if we ignore those lost two years I am still early in my tenure and excited to see what we can achieve in the coming year and beyond. Our current ambitious Direction of Travel, Vision 2025, takes us up to and through our 60th anniversary year. You may be seeing a theme I love an anniversary but for charities they are a difficult thing – celebrate too much and you are criticised for not doing enough but ignore them at your peril we must be proud of what we do.
Every single piece of legislation that exists for carers has a Carers UK stamp on it – of which I am beyond proud - not least because the latest the Carers Leave Act 2023 came on my watch – a piece of legislation that will come into being hopefully in spring next year, has the potential to be life changing for many working carers not just in terms of the availability of leave but the requirement for employers to recognise them in the workplace.
With the upcoming election there is opportunity to quickly upgrade it to paid carers leave if we campaign across the political spectrum, even more impactful especially to those on the lowest pay. Being a part of changing the law is something I have never done before so I am honoured to have been a part of.
But we haven’t just changed the law and gained rights for carers over the past 60 years, we’ve been the voice of our members (currently 48,000), we’ve offered the only national helpline for carers. We’ve developed a world leading product Employers for Carers to empower carers in the workplace. We have a presence and have made huge change in the devolved nations the very best practice of which we strive to transcend the borders and bring in everywhere.
But there is much, much more left to do - when the Reverend Mary Webster set up what is now Carers UK it was because as a single women she was expected to drop her career to care for her elderly parents. There is still a massive gender disparity – you have a 50:50 chance of becoming a carer aged 50. But on average it is 46 if you are a woman and 57 if you are a man. We need to change this. Our latest report showed over a third of carers whose mental health was bad because of their caring responsibilities had had thoughts of self-harm or suicide. A third have waited over a year for their own health care impacting on their ability to care safely and well. The financial crisis has meant carers are literally making choices about eating or heating, unable to switch off an oxygen machine that they need on 24/7 what other choice can they make when carers allowance is the lowest benefit of its type at just £76.75. And so it goes on the to do list is huge and next year promises to be pivotal as we plan for 2025.
In essence, when I take the time (a rare commodity in Chief Executive life) to think about what we have achieved in the face of such extraordinary adversity I am proud to lead Carers UK. I am grateful to the Board who appointed me and continue to support and challenge me, I have an incredibly dedicated and highly skilled staff team who deliver above and beyond on a daily basis. We are fortunate that carers share their experiences with us to ensure that their needs are at the heart of all of our campaigning and whilst we do not and cannot ever do enough for carers our mission to make their lives better remains front and centre of every moment of every working day. Bring on the next five years!