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Working while caring

Many carers also work. Your caring duties and your job may both be important and necessary parts of your life. But it may be difficult to balance the demands of caring, family and work.

Download our booklet ‘Caring for Someone with Cancer’

Listen to our ‘Cancer Affects the Carer Too’ podcast episode

Who is a working carer?

A working carer combines paid employment with providing unpaid personal care, assistance and support to a person with an illness or disability.  There are many different types of caring situations:

  • you may be a partner, relative, friend or neighbour
  • the person you are caring for may also be employed or you may be looking after someone who isn’t in the workforce
  • care can be part-time or full-time, for a short time or long term
  • the support can be practical (e.g. helping with meals, personal care, travel to doctors), emotional (e.g. talking) or spiritual (e.g. praying).

Who can take paid carer’s leave?

Carer’s leave is available when looking after certain members of your family or people you live with, including:

  • immediate family members – a spouse, de facto partner, partner, child, parent, grandparent, grandchild or sibling (brother or sister)
  • your partner’s immediate family members – a child, parent, sibling, grandparent or grandchild of your spouse, partner or de facto partner
  • household members – any person who lives with you
  • former partners – a former or ex spouse, partner or de facto partner.

Will I be able to work?

You will need to weigh up your ability to handle both your caring commitments and your responsibilities at work. Caring can impact on your job in various ways. It may affect your work hours, what you can achieve at work, how much time off you need, your concentration, and your emotional and physical wellbeing.

Each person’s situation is different. Factors to consider include:

  • what treatment the person you care for is having
  • whether you need to travel a long way to take them to treatment from regional or rural areas to the city
  • how sick the person with cancer is
  • what your caring and work duties involve
  • the amount of help or respite care available
  • how supportive your employer is
  • your finances and whether you need to earn an income
  • your leave entitlements
  • whether you can arrange to reduce or change your work hours or move to a different position within your organisation
  • the satisfaction you get from working
  • whether a break will have a large impact on your career progression or future employability
  • what will give you peace of mind
  • whether the caring arrangement is most likely to be temporary or long term.

Before changing your working arrangements, talk with your employer, a work EAP counsellor, family and friends. You can also ask the Carers  Association in your state or territory for information and support. Visit or call the Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737.

Talking to your employer

You aren’t required to tell your employer that you are a carer. However, talking to your employer about your caring duties may help them to  understand and accommodate your needs. It may also help you access carer’s leave and flexible working arrangements.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects carers of people with cancer from workplace discrimination. This means that you can’t usually be dismissed for taking the caring leave you are entitled to.

Before talking to your employer, find out about the policies your workplace has for employees with caring responsibilities and what your employment contract, award or enterprise agreement says.

You and your employer might discuss:

  • the impact that your caring role is likely to have on your work commitments and career goals
  • taking time off or setting up flexible working arrangements
  • infection risk (e.g. working from home or wearing a mask) if the person you care for is immunocompromised
  • whether the caring role is likely to be short term or long term
  • ways your employer may be able to support you
  • the benefits for your employer if you stay in your position
  • who else at work should know about your situation.

If you tell your co-workers about your caring role, they may be a source of support or provide some ideas for how the team can adapt to your changed needs. Some of your fellow employees may also be working carers. However, if you prefer to keep your caring role confidential, your employer needs to respect your wishes.

If you are thinking about resigning, talk to your employer. They may not want to lose you and may suggest some options to help you remain at work that you hadn’t thought about.

Flexible working arrangements

  • Carers have the right under the Fair Work Act 2009 to request flexible working conditions such as adjustments to work hours, work location or pattern of work if they have worked for their employer for at least 12 months.
  • You need to ask in writing, giving details of the change you want and the reasons why you want or need the requested change.
  • Your employer must respond in writing within 21 days and give you a reason if they reject your request.
  • Your employer may only refuse the request if they have discussed it with you and genuinely tried to reach an agreement with you.
  • You can take this to a tribunal if you think that their answer is not fair.
  • Suggest realistic and workable options that show you have thought about how the needs of the workplace can also be met.
  • Your employer can refuse the request on reasonable business grounds only, and they have to tell you their reasons.
  • Talk to your manager or HR department to see if you can arrange some flexible ways of working.
  • Many employers are aware of the challenges working carers face. Your manager may try to be flexible where they can, so it is worth asking.

Taking time off work

You may need to take time off work or to stop working for a while to look after the person with cancer. If you need to take a day off to care for a member of your immediate family or household, you may be able to use personal leave (which includes sick leave and carer’s leave). Casual employees can take 2 days of unpaid carer’s leave at a time.

The National Employment Standards outline the rules for personal leave. These include 10 days of paid personal leave each year for full-time employees. Part-time employees receive this entitlement on a pro rata (proportional) basis, based on the number of hours they work.

You must let your employer know that you are taking leave, and they may ask for a medical certificate or other evidence confirming that you are unable to work.

If you’re considering using annual leave or long service leave, you may want to talk to your employer about your situation. It might be possible to organise flexible working arrangements or take unpaid leave so you don’t have to use all of your paid entitlements.

Unpaid leave

If you’ve used all of your paid personal leave, you are entitled to 2 days of unpaid carer’s leave. These days are reserved for caring for a member of your immediate family or household. Both casual and permanent employees are entitled to this leave. You can take the leave all at once (e.g. 2 working days in a row) or in separate periods as agreed by your employer (e.g. 4 half-days in a row).

If you need more time off and you have used your personal leave and unpaid carer’s leave, you can apply for leave without pay. Keep in mind that your employer doesn’t have to approve this request.

If you request paid personal leave or unpaid carer’s leave, your employer can ask for basic facts about why you need time off. They may need medical documents if you request extended leave. This allows them to approve the leave and make sure it’s recorded correctly. An employer cannot take action against you for taking your leave.

Financial help for carers

Working carers often depend on their income to support their family and the person who is unwell. If your income drops because you need to take time off work, there are some options:

  • Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to see what support may be available. Cancer Council may be able to refer you to a financial adviser or financial counsellor, depending on your location.
  • Centrelink supports carers with a range of payments, including the Carer Payment and Carer Allowance. To check if you are eligible, visit Services Australia or call them on 132 717.
  • Visit the National Debt Helpline or call them on 1800 007 007, or call the Rural Financial Counselling Service on 1800 686 175 for free, confidential financial counselling.
  • Speak to a social worker to see what assistance is available.
  • You may be able to get early access to your superannuation if you are caring for a dependant, such as a child. Make sure you get financial advice about how this may affect your retirement and your ability to claim on any insurance policies linked to your superannuation. Contact your super fund for more details.

Download our booklet ‘Cancer and Your Finances’

Support for carers

There is a wide range of support available to help you with both the practical and emotional aspects of your caring role. The availability of services may vary depending on where you live. Some services are free, but others may have a cost.

Carer Gateway – Carer Gateway works with the Carers Associations in each state and territory to provide services to carers. These include short-term counselling and information on respite and other services. Visit the Carer Gateway or call 1800 422 737.

Respite services – Respite care is available to give you a break. It can be for a couple of hours, overnight or several days. You can use respite care for any reason, such as looking after your own health, visiting friends or going to appointments. Carer Gateway provides information about respite and other support services. Oncology social workers can also offer support and refer you to appropriate services.

Cancer Council – Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or seeCaring for Someone with Cancer. You can also find online support from other carers through the Cancer Council Online Community.

Tips for working carers

  • Talk to your employer about flexible working arrangements, job-sharing or reducing your work hours.
  • If you feel guilty about working, focus on the rewarding and satisfying aspects of both your caring role and your job.
  • Share your feelings with family, friends, workmates or a counsellor.
  • You may be able to talk to a counsellor through an EAP, either through your workplace, a family member’s workplace or the workplace of the person you are caring for.
  • Accept help from your workmates and friends when it is offered. Apps like Gather My Crew can help organise co-workers or friends.
  • It can be hard to look after yourself when balancing the demands of your job with your caring responsibilities.
  • Try to take some time out for yourself each day.
  • Plan respite care in advance so you can have a break.
  • Look after your health and wellbeing by eating well, seeing your doctor when you need to and trying to get enough sleep each night.
  • Try some complementary therapies, such as massage, relaxation or meditation.
  • Shop online to save time and energy.
  • Stay involved in activities you enjoy. It’s a good stress relief and will give you something else to think and talk about aside from caring.
  • Try to maintain your fitness and get some regular exercise to help cope with the demands of working and being a carer.
  • For more tips on combining your work and caring roles, visit the Carer Gateway.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Brooke Russell, Principal Occupational Therapist, WA Cancer Occupational Therapy, WA; Bianca Alessi, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; James Chirgwin, Physiotherapist, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Simon Gates, Barrister, Tasmanian Bar, TAS; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Kaylene Jacques, Director, People and Communications, Cancer Council NSW; Alex Kelly, Senior People Attraction Advisor, Human Resources, Allianz Australia Insurance, NSW; Legal reviewer; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Lesley McQuire, Consumer, Cancer Voices NSW.

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