Millions of informal carers in Europe: lessons learned from the pandemic

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany calls on governments and employers to take their roles seriously in developing the correct mechanisms to address the needs of carers in times of crisis and in times of stability.
Jit Saini

By Jit Saini

Senior Vice President, Head of Medical Affairs, EMEA Region, at Merck KGaA

19 Oct 2022

On October 6th, we celebrated the third occurrence of European Carers Day, organised by Eurocarers. Thanks to this association and many other dedicated initiatives, we are finally acknowledging the pivotal role informal carers play in our healthcare systems, and within our societies at large.

The European Commission’s adoption of a European Care Strategy  further evidenced that ‘care concerns us all.’ Not only as receivers but also importantly as givers of care.  To address the needs of informal carers, the Strategy focuses on ensuring training, psychological and financial support. The one that I would like to consider a bit further is the one of psychological support.

When preparing for future public health crises, the mental health of informal carers should be top of mind

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health is a key resilience factor when governments are preparing responsibly for the next pandemic. It is true that each and every one of us were impacted mentally by the pandemic, to different degrees. But imagine what it meant for the millions of Europeans who were facing these tough times while also having to care for a relative, friend, or neighbour. As already shown by an OECD study conducted years before the pandemic, the prevalence of mental health problems among informal carers was already 20% higher than among non-carers and particularly high for people who provide very intensive care (of more than 20 hours per week). As such, when preparing for future public health crises, the mental health of informal carers should be top of mind.

While the many challenges informal carers face existed long before the pandemic, the crisis clearly exacerbated them. To better understand this phenomenon, we can look to the Embracing Carers®  Well-being Index,  a study which took place in 12 countries including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. With 750 informal carers surveyed in each country, some of the universal challenges carers faced became evident. Some of the most important findings included that 64% of participants in the above-mentioned EU countries said that the pandemic worsened their emotional health. As the pandemic spread, emotional support needs surged, and self-care started to take a backseat. Not only was it a challenge many carers grappled with, but they also expressed that many healthcare professionals and their employers were not considering the emotional toll their carer responsibilities had on their health and work.

If we want to seriously address the mental health needs of informal carers, we must lead by example

When it comes to supporting carers in the workplace, Merck offers all its employees an internal training module on understanding carers’ needs which was also recently recognised in France with a first-place prize at this year’s Company & Employee Caregiver Awards. The module was created by Merck’s Carers’ Employee Resource Group and the Embracing Carers® Initiative for all employees to learn more about resources available for carers working at Merck. Answering the findings from the Well-Being Index, psychological support is a key part of what Merck offers its carer employees, including a peer-to-peer support group and access to counselling. One statement in the training really resonated; namely the importance for carers in the company to take time for themselves each day. Given the significant level of responsibilities that carers have, this message shows that what can seemingly be the easiest task in someone’s self-care routine can be the highest mountain to climb for many.

I close this reflection with that same clear message: If you are one of the millions of informal carers in Europe, remember to take time for yourself today! For the rest of us – employers and governments - if we want to seriously address the mental health needs of informal carers, we must lead by example and develop the correct mechanisms both in times of crisis and in times of stability.

Eurocarers defines a carer as “a person who provides – usually – unpaid care to other people with a chronic illness, disability or other long-lasting health or care need, outside a professional or formal framework”

Embracing Carers® is an initiative by Merck aimed at filling the need for better support and recognition of carers around the world

Merck KGaA is a leading science and technology company, operates across Healthcare, Life Science and Electronics.