Support for working carers across the globe: the development of international standardised guidelines for the workplace

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  • 1 McMaster University, Canada
  • | 2 Canadian Standards Association, Canada
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As the world’s population ages, more unpaid care provision is required by family, friends and neighbours; currently, 349 million people worldwide are estimated to be depending on care, with 101 million of these aged 60 years and older (WHO, 2017). The vast majority of this growing number of unpaid carers are simultaneously employed in the labour market or attending school, and they experience a range of space and time tensions due to the multiple demands of both paid labour and unpaid caregiving. Further, many of these working carers are also caring for young dependants. Research evidence illustrates that unpaid care work negatively impacts paid work (Duxbury and Higgins, 2012; Feinberg and Choula, 2012; Keating et al, 2013; Korfhage, 2019), and few employers have adopted carer-friendly workplace (CFWP) policies. Deficiency of workplace or organisational support could lead to a range of negative employee consequences, which increase costs to employers, including: mental and physical health problems; reduced productivity; increased absenteeism and presenteeism; and employees exiting the workforce altogether. For employers to best support these working carers, a set of standardised guidelines has been created for organisations. Working with the International Standards Organization (ISO), ISO 25551:2021, ‘Ageing societies – general requirements and guidelines for carer-inclusive organizations’, was published in December 2021 (see Figure 1).1 This article reviews the process of the development of the ISO standard, while reviewing the alignment with the United Nations (UN) Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). It highlights the challenges of implementation, while reflecting on the significance and relevance of the standard globally.

Figure 1: Screen shot of ISO website, where the ISO 25551:2021 Ageing Societies - General requirements and guidelines for carer-inclusive organizations.
Figure 1:

Screen shot of ISO 25551:2021

Citation: International Journal of Care and Caring 6, 3; 10.1332/239788221X16498691269944

Standards development process

The international standard project was launched in April 2019 and took 31 months to publication.2 Funded by a Canadian Healthy, Productive Workplace Partnership Grant, sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), this initiative partnered with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and McMaster University (both in Ontario, Canada) to scale up the CSA’s B701-17 standard, ‘Carer-inclusive and accommodating organizations standard’,3 which was published with an implementation guide entitled ‘Helping worker-carers in your organization’ in both English and French in 2017.4 This provided the seed document for the international standard.

Before the standards development process began, key preliminary steps were required. Step 1 included the identification of international support. This was facilitated by partners of the larger team led by principal investigator Dr Allison Williams and included: the International Alliance of Carers Organizations (IACO), Carers Australia, Carers Canada and CarersUK. Step 2 entailed the development and submission of a new work item proposal (NWIP) from the Standards Council of Canada to the ISO Technical Committee on Aging Societies (TC314) for approval. Step 3 involved the approval of Canada for the Secretariat of the Working Group (WG) and Dr Allison Williams as the convenor for the WG given her leadership in developing the CSA’s B701-017 standard. Figure 2 outlines the international standard development process.

Figure 2: Diagram outlining the 6 stages in the ISO standard development process.
Figure 2:

ISO’s international standard development process

Citation: International Journal of Care and Caring 6, 3; 10.1332/239788221X16498691269944

Alignment with the UN SDGs

As noted on the ISO’s download page, the ISO has determined that the ISO carer standard addresses seven UN SDGs (see Figure 3). As the convenor and secretary to the committee that produced the ISO carer standard, we believe that the most critical of these is SDG 5 (Gender Inequality), which will be focused on herein. The second most highlighted one in the ISO’s carer standard is SDG 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth) (both shaded in Figure 3). The long description for Target 5.4 of Goal 5 is to: ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls…. Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.’5 The indicator chosen by the UN Statistics Division to capture Target 5.4 is the ‘Proportion of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work, by sex, age and location’6; this further confirms the relevance of the ISO’s standard given the intention to inform the infrastructure of organisations, such as workplaces, to support unpaid care work.

Figure 3: Charts the 8 UN Sustainability Development Goals relevant to the ISO Carer Standard.
Figure 3:

ISO carer standard’s alignment with the UN SDGs

Citation: International Journal of Care and Caring 6, 3; 10.1332/239788221X16498691269944

There is no question that gender equality is of critical importance given that between 57 and 81 per cent of all carers are female, depending on the country context, most of whom are most likely employed outside the home (Sharma et al, 2016). Further, due to females providing significantly more caregiving hours than males, females experience a greater impact on their paid employment (Eurocarers, 2017), with female working carers comparatively more likely to make job modifications, such as changing jobs or job status, as a result of ongoing caregiving requirements (Merck KGaA, 2017). This is reflected in European research showing that only half of female working carers are able to work full-time hours and that unpaid care work therefore impacts their financial condition (MERCK KGaA, 2017). In addition to supporting the UN SDGs, the ISO’s carer standard supports the aims of the UN’s ‘Declaration on gender responsive standards and standards development’ (UNECE, 2018).

Although not listed by the ISO, both authors – as the convenor and secretary of the ISO’s carer standard – feel that SDG 8 is significantly impacted by the carer standard. SDG 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth) is described as to ‘Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’; Target 8, in particular, aims ‘To achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and for equal pay for work of equal value’ (UN SDGs Goal 8).7 To achieve SDG 8, Target 8 requires that employers recognise the additional burden of unpaid care that women across the globe carry and realise decent work for all women through CFWP policies and practices.

Next steps and challenges

As our key knowledge mobilisation collaborator, the IACO has identified supportive workplaces as a key priority given their mission to work ‘collaboratively and independently to raise awareness of carers, identify and disseminate best practices and enhance carer well-being. Once seen as a personal and private matter in family life, unpaid caregiving has become one of the most important social and economic policy issues worldwide.’8 In addition, IACO members work collectively to: promote the sharing of best practices in caregiving programmes between countries; encourage and provide assistance to countries interested in developing family carer organisations; facilitate international advocacy to advance programmes, policies and legislation that support caregiver well-being; increase awareness of the role and value of the IACO; and increase the visibility of family caregiving across the lifespan as an international issue.9 Made up of 18 country members (including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Hong Kong, India/Nepal, Ireland, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK and the US), the IACO is in the process of creating a working group to engage the international community in supporting working carers,10 as well as working to secure employer champions to model and promote CFWP supports, while engaging with the research evidence that supports workplace culture change that is inclusive of the needs of working carers. This is all being realised through hosting webinars, establishing e-learning modules for employee managers, profiling stories of working carers and educating human resource professionals about the importance and benefits of supporting working carers. The IACO, together with the larger CFWP research programme hosted by McMaster University, is also planning to promote the ISO’s standard at an upcoming international carers conference; here, a range of tools, such as the ISO’s standard, will be highlighted in order to move relevant research evidence into action in the form of CFWPs.

Given the alignment of the sex and gender-inclusive ISO standard with the UN SDGs, we are hopeful about the standard’s uptake around the world. Clearly, employers in wealthy, industrialised countries will be more likely to use the standard given their ability to: (1) resource CFWP initiatives; (2) be receptive to the growing evidence that supports CFWPs; (3) realise inclusive workplaces given growing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) expectations; and (4) work towards realising the UN SDGs. Engaging countries in the Global South will prove comparatively more difficult and require collaboration with the UN, the WHO and the International Labor Organization, all of which support the UN SDGs.


Realising the ISO’s standard is an important step in increasing awareness of and accessibility to CFWP supports and, in so doing, facilitates international advocacy for working carers and the carer organisations that represent them. The ISO’s standard provides the foundation for a range of associated opportunities that build on the realisation of CFWPs, including the ability for countries to share best practices. ISO 25551 is a global benchmark of practical guidance for organisations, developed by experts from 17 countries. It operates as a single tool among many that will be needed to move the dial on CFWP supports across the globe.

The ISO’s standard contributes to eight UN SDGs, all of which have the potential to create a heathier and more equitable society at multiple scales – locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. This is an extremely exciting opportunity given that the standard is a ready-made, accessible tool that provides clear direction for creating CFWPs in the field and therefore real change. Ideally, implementation research will simultaneously occur with the execution of the ISO’s standard in order to continue building the evidence for supporting CFWPs and the career-employees who are at the centre of this workplace cultural shift.


Funding was received from a CIHR/SSHRC Healthy Productive Work Partnership Grant, ‘Scaling up the Career Inclusive Accommodating Organizations Standard’ (FRN: HWP-146001 [Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)]; 890-2016-3018 [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)]).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.


  • 1 McMaster University, Canada
  • | 2 Canadian Standards Association, Canada

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