April’s ‘Monthly Horizon’ Work+Family News

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

The bigger picture

Everything we do and say at the moment takes its relative place against a world backdrop of continuing outrage and compassion over the war in Ukraine, including the particular devastation in cities including Mariupol and Kharkiv.

As one consequence of the invasion, many families across Europe, including the UK, have – or will soon have – opened their homes to refugees, bringing an expanded sense of what being family means for all those involved. Many have donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee. Bright Horizons is match funding employees’ contributions to Save the Children (a DEC member) as well as making sure our resources on talking with children about current affairs – and in particular, war – are widely and freely promoted.

The cost of living, and working

Amid rising costs of living, compounded by the global impact of sanctions on Russia, the Chancellor made his Spring Statement. The 5p cut in fuel duty (running until March 2023) helps drivers of petrol and diesel cars though was criticised as a missed opportunity to address the climate emergency or indeed to help the very poorest, who are least likely to drive.

The National Insurance threshold will rise on 6th July to £12,570 (matching the point at which income tax begins): a measure expressly described as ‘helping families with the cost of living’ and income tax will fall from 20% to 19% from April 2024.

Despite some lobbying, the planned 1.25 percentage point rise in National Insurance will go ahead on 6th April 2022, adding costs for both employers and employees. HMRC has asked that payslips include a message to say "1.25% uplift in NICs funds NHS, health & social care” to explain its purpose.

Given the high cost of living, and with energy prices about to rise again, it is worth bearing in mind that employers can support employees’ childcare costs through a nursery partnership in a way that can be cost-neutral for the employer itself.

The Early Years sector itself had a boost this month when Bright Horizons announced a £10m investment in recruitment, retention and training of early years educators which will help front-line workers as well as elevating the profession overall. This is a significant investment given the much-reported context of funding challenges.

Lockdowns: two years, and counting

As we passed the 2-year anniversary of the first Covid lockdown, most of the remaining UK legal restrictions were lifted. March also saw a halt to making vaccination compulsory for health and social care workers. 90% of respondents to a Government Consultation wanted to stop the requirement though 30% of managers in health and care services wanted to see the vaccination requirement come into place. Either way, many thought the timing of the decision was poor, pressing up against the April deadline.

Meanwhile, Omicron BA.2 marches quietly on, with rising Covid cases, and hospital admissions, above the previous January 2022 peak. It is generally a much milder illness for the vaccinated, though has still prompted a fourth booster rollout for certain vulnerable and older groups.

Don’t quit!

New Pew research with over 6,000 non-retired U.S. adults, shows workers quit due to dissatisfaction with pay, opportunities, lack of respect, childcare issues, or wish for greater flexibility in hours as their top 5 reasons.

Research by The Muse suggests the grass is not always greener, identifying ‘shift shock’ in which the new job did not turn out to be all it promised for 72% in their survey of 2,500. This could imply real scope for employers to sing louder about their culture, benefits and mission, ensuring talented workers do not wander off only to be disappointed elsewhere.

Designing the future of work

Interestingly, hybrid work locations were not a factor in the Pew research top 10 quoted above; helpful to know for those employers now encouraging a full-time return to the office.

For employers still consulting to ensure hybrid working is inclusive, you are not alone: we had a lively discussion on gender equity with Norton Rose Fulbright and EDF Renewables as part of HR Grapevine Live. During an audience poll, over two-thirds (68%) said they were still planning or consulting on what is needed for inclusive hybrid working.

As we design the future of work, bear in mind Business in the Community and IPSOS report which highlights that in a survey of over 5,000 people, 58% said caring responsibilities – for children or adults – had stopped them seeking a promotion or new role and nearly 3 in 10 (28%) had left a job because it was too hard to balance work and care. The BITC/IPSOS research further revealed that women and ethnic minorities shoulder the highest impact of caring responsibilities.

However we plan our future workforces as employers, the weight of hostile attention focused on P&O Ferries offers a sobering lesson: do not ignore proper process for the astonishing reason that you believe no union would agree to it. As a result, the practice of ‘firing and re-hiring’ will now be more difficult.

Time for Transparency

Between the flurry of commitments made and reaffirmed on International Women’s Day (IWD) and the impending Gender Pay Gap (GPG) reporting deadlines, this is a season to scrutinse gender parity. We saw the Twitter Gender Pay Gap Bot entertainingly call out the GPG of any employer daring to post a celebratory message for IWD. The flaw in this clever device is its implication that having a gender pay gap means the same as providing unequal pay for the same role. In fact, it mostly means women are occupying the lower-paid roles in an organisation. Of course we should ask as nation how we progress more women to the higher earning roles; and how we encourage men to take up more of the lower-earning front-line roles in some sectors. Employers making commitments to gender equity are talking about social change and the removal of systemic barriers, which takes time, especially when each year’s report is a snapshot of the previous March or April. Bright Horizons will be partnering with HRreview in a webinar to unpick the pay gap on 28th April.

One key moment when the gender gap is reinforced is when employers ask about salary history during hiring. This can pin women, and some minority groups, to a pattern of lower earning even when moving to a senior role. On International Women’s Day, the Minister for Women launched a programme with a pilot group of employers to improve pay transparency in recruitment by including salary details on job adverts and not asking about salary history. This is something Bright Horizons also signed up to via the Fawcett Society #endsalarayhistory campaign on equal pay day last November.

Not all pay gaps get equal treatment

There will not, after all, be compulsory Ethnicity pay gap reporting at this time, the Government has confirmed. Guidance for voluntary reporting will instead be issued. One of the perceived hurdles to ethnicity pay gap reporting is the absurdity of a binary comparison of one group with one other, in this case positioning all ‘white’ employees alongside all ‘other ethnic groups’ which seems insensitive and irrational, just like the umbrella term BAME which is falling out of use.

As we know, it is already artificial enough treating gender as binary for reporting; it is much more nuanced again for ethnicity. Many employers will continue with voluntary reporting as the need to fix barriers to progression is surely greater than any challenge in reporting.

Taking Action on Educational Catch-up and Wellbeing

The House of Commons Education Committee issued a report: Is the Catch-up Programme fit for purpose? concluding that ‘current plans do not go far enough’. Our own Modern Families Index Spotlight research highlighted that well over half of parents (55%) have concerns.

With this in mind, it is encouraging that well over 50 of Bright Horizons’ UK clients are now providing access to virtual tutoring to their employees, paid-for as a use of their back-up care programme. You can hear more about this and other ways in which employers can provide meaningful support to working families in our HR Webinar on 18th May: Working parents' educational concerns: The new frontier in work-life balance

And speaking of children's wellbeing, the Government has launched a Green Paper and consultation as part of a review of support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) backed by £70m in funding. Meanwhile, physical punishment of children has been outlawed in Wales, bringing Wales in line with Scotland on this, and ahead of the rest of the UK.