Joana Vicente portrait photo outside one of Linnaeus University's buildings in Växjö

Women’s careers take a back seat in connection with informal care

One in six women reduce their paid working hours and more than twice as many women as men leave the workforce altogether as a result of caring for a family member or someone close to them. Gender differences within informal care are clearly highlighted in a new dissertation by Joana Vicente at Linnaeus University.

A majority of Sweden’s 1.3 million informal carers combine paid work with care of a relative or someone close to them. Caring for a relative often has a negative impact on their ability to work and this is shown in Vicente’s dissertation in health sciences, based on research linked to the Swedish Family Care Competence Centre (NkA).

“Some 40% of working carers (WKCs) experience a reduced ability to work due to their caring activities. As many as one in three WKCs experience that it is difficult to study or have a career because of their caring situation”, Vicente explains.

Women’s ability to work is affected most

It is primarily women’s ability to engage in paid work that is restricted by providing informal care. One in six female WKCs who provide care, help or support to a family member or other next of kin on a regular basis reduces their paid working hours.

Informal care

Informal care is generally unpaid care that is conducted outside of a legal or formal framework. Working carers, WKCs, can be family members, friends, or other next of kin who provide care or in other way help and/or support an older person with a health and/or care need/s, person with long-term illness and/or disability on a regular basis. A majority of the 1.3 million Swedish WKCs combine informal care with paid work.

Vicente’s dissertation in health sciences studies how WKCs combine their paid work life with informal care and points out, in addition to gender differences, how the double roles affect the carer’s health, different opportunities for support, and how their situation has been affected by the covid-19 pandemic.

One of the Phd studies highlights that more than twice as many women as men, seven and three percent respectively, leave the labour market altogether because of providing care to a relative or someone close to them., shows one of the studies in the dissertation.

“A possible explanation for this is that men have more flexible working hours in general and can, therefore, better adapt their work situation with that of their caring situation. Another possible explanation is that women take on more responsibility in the family when the need for informal care arises, and as a result they stop working or reduce their paid working hours”, Vicente continues.

Such temporary changes can have long-term consequences. Reducing their paid working hours or leaving the paid workforce altogether leads to a less secure financial situation and can make it more difficult to return to the labour market in the future.

Differences between men and women

Vicente’s PhD thesis also reveals how working men’s and women’s provision of informal care also differs. On average, women spend more time on caregiving, receive less help from others, and experience caregiving as demanding to a greater extent than that of men.

Voluntary care, or not?

Informal care is voluntary in Sweden, as opposed to in many other European countries where adult children have a legal responsibility to provide care for their ageing/ed parents when needed.

“However, many informal WKCs experience their role as an obligation rather than a voluntary choice, as they do not receive sufficient support from health and social care systems”, says Vicente.

“In general, women’s caregiving activities consist of more areas than men’s caregiving tasks. This can be personal care, contact with healthcare, medicines and treatment, or assisting with physical activities. It is more common that men assist with, for instance, administrative and financial support”, Vicente explains.

The majority of WKCs provide between one and ten hours a week on caregiving, and differences between the sexes can be seen alsohere. Women are overrepresented in the group who spends most time on informal care.

“The results from the Phd thesis help us to understand why women are more likely to leave the labour market or reduce their working hours in connection with caring for a relative or next of kin”, says Vicente.

Type of informal care affects the ability to work

The ability to work is affected differently depending on what type of informal care is carried out. For instance, WKCs of a person with mental illness experience that it is much more difficult to continue in paid work compared to WKCs of a person with dementia.

Vicente states that knowledge about how informal care affects work capacity is important to design better support for this large group of informal carers.

“Psychological stress, financial problems, and whether you experience caregiving as demanding or not are three important factors that affect the ability to work and provide informal care. Therefore, these factors are a good starting point for planning policies and services to support WKCs”, Vicente explains.

“More needs to be done to address and counteract gender differences among WKCs in Sweden”, Vicente concludes.


Learn more:

Joana Vicente’s PhD dissertation is in health sciences: "The work care dilemma – an exploration of working carers’ situation with regards to their health status, gendered patterns of care, supports and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Linnaeus University conducts research on working carers at the Swedish Family Care Competence Centre (NkA).