Around the world, unpaid care is a fundamental but mostly invisible component of numerous countries health and social care systems. For example, every day, another 6,000 people take on an unpaid caring responsibility in the UK, equalling over two million people every year. Of those carers, 1.3 million provide over 50 hours of care per week.

Throughout the pandemic, the number of unpaid carers has exploded due to concerned family members and friends taking on the responsibility of looking after vulnerable loved ones. Over the last year, Carers UK estimates that around 13.6 million people have cared for someone due to the social isolation of lockdown and the continuing necessity of providing care while services were diminished inaccessibility and functionality.

The pandemic has emphasised and made visible many of the structural issues that have been plaguing the health and social care sectors – such as understaffed services, insecure hours, and low pay. However, the impact of Covid-19 on the invisible everyday care given by unpaid carers has largely not had the same level of saliency.

Emotional strain and burnout, UK unpaid carers feel the emotional toll of the last year

Caring for a loved one is undoubtedly rewarding, although predictably, the unpaid aspect of the responsibility creates significant financial challenges. Also, the demands of caring for someone long-term, especially during a pandemic, offload some unique mental strains onto the carer.

Millions of carers in the UK have been struggling with their mental health due to increased care demands over the last year, concluded a study commissioned by Carers UK and Merck, a science and technology company.

The study's findings underlined the potential detrimental impact to the mental wellbeing of unpaid carers when resources are not provided to support them, Government messaging isn’t easily comprehensible, and when respite from the unpaid service that they provide is not forthcoming.

Key findings from the study included:

  • 70% stated that caring during the pandemic has negatively affected their emotional and mental health.
  • 54% said that unpaid care had impacted their financial wellbeing, largely due to paying for supplies and resources need to provide care.
  • 49% responded that their physical health had been compromised.
  • 77% said they have reached unprecedented levels of burnout.
  • 90% have put the needs of the people they support above their own.
  • 4 in 5 sacrificed their personal live to care for others.
  • A third felt they were unable to take a break and have no one to turn to for support.

Why have UK carers fared so poorly during the pandemic?

Emily Holzhausen, director of policy and public affairs at Carers UK, commented that there was “a certain level of invisibility of messaging during the pandemic… We were getting a lot of very stressed calls, asking ‘am I allowed to do this?’”

Additionally, Ms Holzhausen said that this invisibility in policy and planning extended beyond the confusion around public health messaging on what the rules allowed and didn’t allow, but also to the provision of PPE and support services.

Usually, family members would share the care of a relative, but during the pandemic, the majority of UK carers took sole responsibility to cut down the risk of infection with some people moving into the house of the vulnerable person they are looking after, meaning they were having to juggle working from home and providing around the clock care.

While many people found that working from home was convenient, many others experienced burnout due to the lack of respite and overdemand.

“What is interesting is that homeworking has allowed some people to juggle work and care in a much better way. But, for other people, it's made their lives almost impossible because they don't have any alternative care, and they don't have a chance. So, it's become a 24-hour caring situation. Or it's just so difficult to juggle work and care at the same time.”

Worryingly, Ms Holzhausen added that many unpaid carers thought their employers wouldn’t understand the demands put onto carers working from home and their concerns of infecting the person they care for. She said that this is a matter of “visibility” to get employers to understand the concerns carers have as restrictions loosen and employees return back to workplaces.

Another significant cause of stress expressed in the Carers UK study existed prior to the pandemic, as many carers were already facing substantial challenges combining work and care, with the inability to work full time causing a serious financial burden. Consequentially during the pandemic, the reduction of available community services created an even greater challenge in combining paid work with unpaid care.

"Families were having to make these really tough decisions in the pandemic in order to keep people safe. And that included ‘do I have to give up work to care.”

Lessons from lockdown

Carers UK estimates that unpaid carers have saved the UK Government £530 million every day during the pandemic and have been calling on the Government to increase the carers allowance by £20 to £87.25 per week. To recognise the cost-benefit of their work and partially alleviate some of the financial burden and the negative mental health consequences that follow from that situation.

With in mind that the UK has an ageing population, and the number of dependent older people is projected to increase by 113%, Ms Holzhausen concluded that the pandemic has taught us that there is an urgent need for more respite support, training, greater access to services, and funding to help unpaid carers continue to provide support for people with health and social care needs.