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Information for working carers

Many carers who care for someone with cancer are also employed. Your caring duties and your job may both be important and necessary parts of your life. However, it is often 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 unpaid personal care, assistance and support to a person who needs this help because of 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, over a short period of time or long term
  • the support can be practical (e.g. preparing meals, helping with personal care, managing medicines), emotional or spiritual.

Who is covered?

Under the Fair Work Act 2009, carer’s leave is available for:

  • immediate family members – an employee’s spouse, de facto partner, child, parent, grandparent, grandchild, sibling (or the child, parent,  grandparent, grandchild or sibling of the employee’s spouse or de facto partner)
  • household members – any person who lives with the employee.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 also protects carers of people with cancer from workplace discrimination. This includes family members (spouse, de facto partner and other relatives) and unrelated carers who provide assistance to a person affected by cancer. Contact your state or territory anti-discrimination organisation to see whether they provide similar protection.

If I’m caring for someone with cancer, 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:

  • 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 arrangement is likely to be temporary or long term.

Before making changes to your working arrangements, talk over your thoughts with your employer, family and friends. You can also visit Carers SA or Carers Australia for more information and support.

Talking to your employer about your caring commitments.

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.

Before talking to your employer, investigate the policies your workplace has for employees with caring responsibilities or what your award says.

  • You and your employer might discuss:
  • the impact of your caring role on your work commitments
  • taking time off or setting up flexible working arrangements
  • 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 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.

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.

Flexible working arrangements

  • Carers have the right under the Fair Work Act 2009 to request adjustments to their 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 for the requested change.
  • Suggest realistic and workable options that show you have thought about how the needs of the workplace can also be met. Your employer needs to accept or refuse your request in writing within 21 days of receiving it.
  • Your employer can refuse the request on reasonable business grounds only, and they have to tell you their reasons.
  • Talk to your manager or human resources department to see if you can arrange some flexible work practices.
  • Many employers are aware of the challenges working carers face. Your manager may try to be flexible.

Taking time off work to look after someone with cancer.

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 can use personal leave, which includes sick leave and carer’s leave.

The National Employment Standards outline the rules for personal leave. These include allocating 10 days of paid personal leave each year to 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 the leave, and your employer may require a medical certificate or other evidence confirming the need to take the leave.

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 two 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. two working days in a row) or in separate periods as agreed by your employer (e.g. four 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 ask for paid personal leave or unpaid carer’s leave, your employer can request basic facts about why you need time off. They may require medical documentation supporting a request for extended leave. This allows them to approve the leave and make sure it’s recorded correctly.

Is there financial help available 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.
  • Centrelink supports carers with a range of payments, including the Carer Payment and Carer Allowance. To check eligibility requirements, visit Services Australia or call them on 132 717.
  • Visit the National Debt Helpline (or call 1800 007 007) or the Rural Financial Counselling Service (or call 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 fund for more details.

Download our booklet ‘Cancer and Your Finances’

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.

Carers Associations – Carers Australia 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 Carers Australia or call them on 1800 242 636.

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. The Carer Gateway provides information about respite and other support services. Visit Carer Gateway or call them on 1800 422 737. Oncology social workers can also offer support and refer you to appropriate services.

Cancer Council – Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out more about carers’ services. You can also find online peer support from the Cancer Council Online Community.

It can be difficult to find the time to look after your own health and wellbeing when you are trying to balance the demands of your job with your caring responsibilities. Maintaining your fitness and eating healthy foods will help you cope with the demands of both roles.

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 Employee Assistance Program (EAP), either through your workplace or the workplace of the person you are caring for.
  • Accept help from your workmates when it is offered.
  • 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.
  • Try some complementary therapies, such as massage, relaxation or meditation. Call 13 11 20 for more information and audio recordings.
  • 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.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Kerryann White, Manager, People and Culture, Cancer Council SA; Nicola Martin, Principal, McCabe Curwood, NSW; Jane Auchettl, Coordinator, Education and Training Programs, Cancer Council Victoria; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Alana Cochrane, Human Resources Business Partner, Greater Bank Newcastle, NSW; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, North West Regional Hospital, TAS; Dianne Head, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Metastatic Breast Cancer, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead, NSW; Alex Kelly, Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Aon, NSW; Prof Bogda Koczwara AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Sharyn McGowan, Occupational Therapist, Bendigo Health, VIC; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Michelle Smerdon, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

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