In light of growing recognition, the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union hosted a conference to discuss the issue of informal carers and the challenges they face. In addition, the European Social Policy Network (ESPN) and European Parliament have published reports which explore the subject. An overview of the main themes emerging from these is presented below.

The context

Over the past few decades there has been growing recognition of the importance of satisfactory work-life balance. According to the ESPN, the work-life balance of a carer (predominantly a working age woman) is an under-recognised issue and in the majority of countries, long-term care (LTC) policies have overlooked the situation of the carer.

In August 2015, the European Commission introduced a roadmap document to address this. The objective of the document is to allow for parents with children or workers with dependant relatives to better balance caring and professional responsibilities.

Work-life balance in a changing society conference

The conference, ‘Work-life balance in a changing society’ was organised within the framework of the Slovak presidency of the Council of the European Union and took place 20 – 21 September 2016, in Bratislava.

The conference brought together 160 experts to discuss the Commission’s roadmap document. It also facilitated dialogue on issues such as flexible forms of childcare, care for the elderly and other dependants as well as flexible work arrangements and the need for equal sharing of responsibilities between partners.

European Social Policy Network report

The ESPN report ’Work-life balance measures for persons of working age with dependent relatives in Europe – A study of national policies’ examines the measures in place to support working-age people with dependent relatives to balance work and caring responsibilities across 35 countries.

The report reveals that there are large differences between national LTC systems. Nordic countries are the most advanced with part-time work arrangements and flexible working time. However, many Eastern European countries follow a family-based model where benefits are only paid to the dependent and support schemes for carers are underdeveloped. ESPN expresses concern that family-based systems combined with recent austerity measures have a tendency to lock women into traditional household roles.

The ESPN concludes that a good work-life balance cannot be reached by specific carer’s benefits alone. It depends on elevating the status of women and improving their access to the labour market, and on employment policies that allow people with dependent relatives to balance work and care.

European Parliament report

The European Parliament drafted a report, ‘A new start to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families’ to bring more attention to the debate and prompt the Commission to take further action. In common with the ESPN, the Parliament highlights the need to promote equal progress among Member States. The Parliament also outlines the opportunity that modernising work-life balance policies can bring in terms of promoting gender equality, making better use of people’s skills and addressing the challenges of an ageing population.

The publication of these reports and holding of the conference are evidence of a growing awareness of the work-life balance issue for carers. Flexible and part-time working arrangements in combination with elevating the status of women will be needed to tackle the issue. It is also important to acknowledge that progress on this issue will be a vital step towards ending the gender employment gap which reportedly costs the EU EUR 370 billion per year.