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Unpaid Carers in the UK Have One of the World’s Highest Levels of Emotional Strain and Burnout, New Study Reveals

Working in collaboration with Carers UK and other global caregiving organisations, Merck, a leading science and technology company, has published the first large-scale global Carer Well-Being Index study, as part of its Embracing Carers™ initiative.


The study highlights the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on social care in the UK. Increased demands on unpaid carers have had a detrimental impact on mental well-being, with 7 in 10 (70%) stating that caring during the pandemic has negatively affected their emotional and mental health, significantly higher than the global average (61%).1 Over half (54%) said it has also impacted their financial wellbeing, largely due to paying for supplies and resources needed to provide care. Additionally, 49% of respondents stated that their physical health had been compromised.1


According to Carers UK, an estimated 13.6 million people in the UK have provided unpaid care during the peak of the pandemic2 and continue to do so. The Embracing CarersTM study suggests that 1 in 10 (10%) UK carers started providing care for the first time since the outbreak,1 however estimates could be much higher, which has also had a knock-on effect of their own work commitments and needs. 


One year on and the ramifications of the pandemic and lockdowns on caring for loved ones is having lasting effects, with 77% of UK carers experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout,1 as well as more physical and emotional exhaustion than ever before. This reflects the findings that 9 in 10 carers (91%) are putting the needs of the people they support above their own and 4 in 5 (80%) feel they have sacrificed their personal life since the pandemic began.1 Among carers whose emotional health worsened during the pandemic, a third (35%) feel they have no-one to turn to for support.1


Why has the UK fared so poorly?

Although shielding restrictions have now lifted and lockdown is starting to ease,3 unpaid carers have had to take on more or new responsibilities, in addition to their own work commitments, with key resources and support services, including face to face respite care, being severely reduced or unavailable to them. This was one of the biggest challenges, for a third (33%) of UK unpaid carers felt unable to take a break,1 one of the highest in Europe, meaning that they themselves are not looking after their own needs while caring for loved ones.


With an aging population, the number of dependent older people in the UK is likely to increase by 113% by 2051,4 and the increasing challenges due to the pandemic, there is an urgent need for more structured support, greater access to services and funding to help unpaid carers who provide critical support for people with health and social care needs. The study found that British unpaid carers are not receiving enough support from the national (63%) or local (62%) government, higher than the global average (57% and 56% respectively),1 which needs to be addressed.


Helen Walker, Chief Executive, Carers UK says, “This Embracing Carers study is the largest and most comprehensive comparative global study of unpaid carers and highlights the true impact of COVID-19 on them. The last year has shone a light on the extraordinary support unpaid carers have provided, but this has come at a cost, with many experiencing severe emotional strain and burnout. Carers are in need of support and are at risk of illness as a result.


“As we move out of lockdown it is vital that the Government, services and all parts of our communities play their role providing support for carers to take respite breaks, improve awareness and understanding of the resources and support available to carers, and that carers get greater access to that support, whether it is emotional, physical or financial.”


Helen continues, “Although the pandemic has created challenges it has also provided some positive changes for carers, including workplace flexibility and the ability to take time off work with furlough. There has been better access to online appointments, the establishment of respite support bubbles and increased use of technology enabling people to keep in touch with loved ones.” 


The impact of COVID-19 on finances and employment

Alongside the psychological impact of caregiving taking its toll on UK unpaid carers, it has had an impact on their finances, physical health and current employment. Financial responsibilities have increased notably for carers, coinciding with the stress of having to work remotely and care for vulnerable individuals.


Unpaid UK carers bear the brunt of the impact on their own careers, with 59% providing caring responsibilities in addition to their other paid work.1 Carers UK found that pre-pandemic approximately 5 million people in the UK were juggling caring responsibilities with work, approximately 1 in 7 of the workforce,5 and a further 2.8 million more workers took on a new caring responsibility during the coronavirus outbreak.2


Managing the stress of having to work remotely and care for vulnerable individuals has taken its toll, with two thirds (66%) of employed British unpaid carers concerned they will have to work full time remotely while also caregiving for the foreseeable future.1 This additional responsibility and increased time required to support loved ones during the pandemic has meant that over half (56%) of unpaid carers have had a negative impact on their career, such as long-term employment goals.1


The study also estimated that the time spent caring for loved ones will increase post-pandemic from 21.3 hours caring for a loved one before the pandemic to 32 average hours per week in the future, higher than the global average of 28.3 hours per week in the future.1 With the estimated increase in hours expected for unpaid carers, it is also important that employers are understanding and support the carers in their workforces, however 3 in 5 (60%) employed UK unpaid carers surveyed felt their employer does not support their needs to be a caregiver/carer.1


Doina Ionescu, Managing Director at Merck Healthcare UK & ROI explains, “Many of us have experienced, or will experience, what it is like to be a carer for a loved one. Caregiving needs to be made a public health priority to provide better support, especially during a time where we will see the knock-on effect of COVID-19 for the immediate future and beyond.


Doina continues, “Merck is proud to be leading the Embracing Carers initiative collaboratively with global caregiving organisations, including Carers UK, raising awareness about the often-overlooked needs of unpaid carers, compounded further by the pandemic. The study has clearly identified key societal solutions and specific actions that can address their needs now and in the future. Working in the fields of oncology, neurology and immunology, among others, means we understand the value of unpaid carers within the health and social care system. We also know the increased pressure and burden placed on employees who provide care for a loved one. This is why we are members of Employers For Carers, which ensures that employers have the support to retain and support employees with caring responsibilities.”


The results of the UK Carer Well-Being Index highlight the need for a clear roadmap of actions, driven by the public and private sector, to alleviate some of the amplified pressures on caregivers and increase awareness, discussion and action about the needs of caregivers during the pandemic and beyond.


The Carer Well-Being Index was commissioned in partnership with global carer advocacy groups and surveyed a broad sample of over 9,000 carers across 12 countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, who are providing informal care for a loved one with a long-term illness, physical disability, or cognitive/mental condition.



  1. The Carer Well-Being Index, Data on file
  2. Carers UK. Carers Week 2020 Research Report Available at: (Last accessed May 2021)
  3. (COVID-19) Coronavirus restrictions: what you can and cannot do. Available at : (Last accessed May 2021)
  4. Public Health England. Caring as a social determinant of health. Findings from a rapid review of reviews and analysis of the GP Patient Survey. Available at: (Last accessed May 2021)
  5. Carers UK. Juggling work and unpaid care, 2019. Available at: (Last accessed May 2021)



Date of preparation: May 2021


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Last Updated: 06-May-2021