'Caring is a burden and for some carers it can be overwhelming, making work difficult and sometimes impossible, and severely restricting life chances'

Most employers respect the boundary between personal and working lives. But there is one area where more knowledge might help both sides, particularly where the employer provides health or social care. A significant proportion of the working population have caring responsibilities.

Staff of all ages care for relatives, partners and friends of varying degrees of dependency. Much is done gladly and with love. Many would not have it any other way. But caring is a burden and for some carers it can be overwhelming, making work difficult and sometimes impossible, and severely restricting life chances.

How much do employers know about the caring responsibilities of staff? Do they take account of this other world of work, a world of much longer hours, no pay and few benefits? Of course the staff job needs to be done. The purpose of the organisation must come first and that is not difficult to justify when the business we are in is caring for patients and clients.

In many cases close colleagues do understand the burden and make allowances for the conscientious and genuine co-worker. This informal support is invaluable and can transform working and personal lives.

But employers could do more to understand and support those who have two working lives. Hours, holiday arrangements, flexible training and overtime are all important areas. But could employers go further? Many excellent carers' organisations now exist and carers' centres are valuable sources of services, support information and contact.

Is there any reason large employers could not work with carers' centres to establish part-time branches in the workplace? Could employers help staff share experiences and solutions?

All of this applies to employers in any business. For employers in health and social care there is another agenda. Many carers have insights born of long experience and understanding. They know all about the services the people they care for require.

Carers who work in health and social care are in a unique position to inform service development. On the one hand they have a knowledge that comes from their work - direct experience of service provision, support services or management. On the other they look after patients and clients not 37 hours a week but all the time they are not doing paid work.

Many health and social care staff with no experience of caring have no idea what it means to care for someone all day and night, including weekends and bank holidays, when service provision is often restricted. The shift never ends.

Surely it should be possible, where carers are willing, for employers in health and social care to learn from the carers who are their employees, to gain a real understanding of what service delivery is really like. How good it would be if employers, as service providers, used this knowledge to redesign service provision. Not only would patient, client and carer experience improve, staff who are carers would feel cared for, and that their burden is understood, acknowledged and shared.