July’s ‘Monthly Horizon’ Work+Family News

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

We’ve just entered the second half of 2022. Why does it feel as though we’ve already had a year’s worth of headlines? Amid the many immediate concerns, the surge in vaccine-resistant strains of Omicron – meaning many of us are getting Covid again though probably not as badly – implies we should not take our eye completely off that ball either, nor think of it only as a winter issue in terms of impact on staffing levels.

Cost of living: Balancing Pay Pressures with Inflation

The daily news continues to focus, understandably, on the immediate challenges of simply getting by for many individuals and families. The Government has provided a Cost of Living Support website with a range of suggestions on saving money, which did tell me something new. Who else didn’t know there was a Two Together Railcard for those of us who fall outside all the well-known and mostly age-related categories? This could be a small help for colleagues who regularly commute together. There are stories of hardship everywhere, including among working people, along with uplifting insights into the ingenuity and dedication of people who provide community-level support, such as the Yorkshire-based Clothing Bank.

There is increasingly visible action and calls for higher pay, from rail workers to criminal barristers to the NHS. Some employers are investing in higher salaries while others are offering financial guidance, cost-saving benefits and salary sacrifice schemes.

In our latest issue of On The Horizon, which will be published shortly, we have put together an article showing the cost savings for both families and employers through the provision of family-friendly services, such as the workplace nursery exemption as a salary sacrifice scheme. (I will post a link to that with this post once it is released).

Availability and Cost of Childcare in the news

One of the revelations of the Covid pandemic was that childcare is a vital part of the social and business infrastructure. When early years education locked down – apart from provision for frontline workers – work itself became somewhere between much harder, and frankly impossible, to deliver for working parents. Children also missed out on developmental opportunities. So, there is a stronger focus than ever on fixing the childcare trilemma: ensuring quality, affordability and availability of early years care and education.

Amid this renewed focus, the early years sector has seen the biggest drop in the number of providers in more than six years, especially in deprived areas, as smaller providers in particular struggle to get by with rising costs – including escalating energy costs – and challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled educators. Bright Horizons made a significant investment in the financial wellbeing of early years educators back in March and is finding that many who had contemplated leaving the sector do want to stay when the cost of living is addressed; however not all providers are able to keep pace with cost pressures, particularly given the shortfall in funding levels provided by local councils. Ofsted has noted that by June this year, there had been a fall of more than 4,000 childcare providers in a year.

Concerned about availability of places and costs for working parents, the Department for Education has launched a consultation. The proposal includes increasing the number of 2-year-olds who can be looked after per practitioner from 4 to 5 in England, bringing the ratios in line with those operating in Scotland. The government proposals also aim to boost the availability of childminders by reducing the upfront costs of becoming a childminder and allowing childminders to work from a greater range of locations such as community centres. A government childcare choices website offers parents help in figuring out options for financial support with childcare.

There has been a strong and reasoned pushback from the sector and from campaigners since the option of changing ratios was first mooted, arguing that a deeper reform and fuller review of funding is required. The Fawcett Society has just published very helpful research into child care systems in England, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, with information on the US Build Back Better proposals. It explores the links between childcare policy and female labour market participation as well as child development outcomes. I attended a Roundtable in Westminster discussing the outcomes, feeding in the point there is much more employers can do in supporting access to childcare (and the best ones already do), and supporting the findings that there is scope now for innovation in childcare funding as well as that having highly qualified practitioners supports the quality of early years education. our own Apprenticeship scheme plays a part here.

Bright Horizons UK MD, Ros Marshall calls for a more strategic look at all the options, including valuing the role of employers in this provision: “Employers can be part of the solution. Workplace nurseries or workplace nursery partnerships play a clear part in helping to address the accessibility and affordability of early years provision. We recognise that a workplace partnership requires investment, but all of the companies we work with say that it’s a worthwhile one, and for their employees it ranks as one of their top benefits.”

Building Culture in the New World of Work

Dr. Eliza Filby, speaking at the Reba Wellbeing Congress on age diversity, reminded us that for generation Z (born between 1997 and 2010) the ‘workplace is oddly different from their social media feed’ but that they are used to being heard: ‘they’ve had a smartphone since they were 13’ and have the capacity to speak truth to power. Dr. Wolfgang Seidl and Alanna Rae from Mercer Marsh Benefits shared film clips of young people still in school with high expectations of flexibility and wellbeing as priorities in the future of work.

In this context, figuring out how to (re)build culture in our post-pandemic world, fit for changing expectations, and with a pressing need to attract and retain skilled people, is a priority. Our webinar on Culture with HRreview attracted a large and engaged audience. Trust, authenticity and shared values were key among the many insights and practical tips discussed by Denise Priest and Janine Leightley of Bright Horizons and Ben Gautrey of Great Place to Work.

Meanwhile, employers continue to develop models of hybrid working, supported by evidence and research, including an ACAS survey showing a rise in new ways of working, and a CIPD survey showing widespread adoption of hybrid despite some senior decision-makers assuming that a fuller return to office will come in due course.

A recording of our own contribution to the Reba Congress – Practical wellbeing strategies to empower working parents and carers – will soon will available to view on the conference site or our site. There is consistent evidence that an inclusive and high-performing culture should include ‘a strong parental infrastructure’, a recent very helpful report insisting on this being the Women in Finance 2022 Blueprint, produced with Bain Capital. Page 31 showcases the kind of support put in place by high profile Bright Horizons clients. Enabling parents with practical support is credited with playing a role in women progressing and closing the gender pay gap.

Meanwhile, no self-respecting corporate culture is complete without a huge nod to increasingly hands-on working dads. Dr. Jasmine Kelland’s new book Caregiving Fathers in the Workplace – Organisational Experiences and the Fatherhood Forfeit shines a light on the bias and assumptions faced by many fathers and the easy changes that empower parents and carers of all genders. In Canada, WCM (Women in Capital Markets), a national not-for-profit company that works to accelerate equity, diversity and inclusion in finance, announced a Parental Leave Pledge, likewise encouraging equal treatment of new and expectant parents.

Overturning Roe v Wade has been divisive, to say the least

In a review of news affecting working parents and carers, we should not overlook the recent US Supreme Court decision affecting those who seek choice about when, how, and whether to start a family. The judgment in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization (Dobbs being state health officer of the Mississippi Department of Health) held that the US ‘Constitution does not confer a right to abortion’, returning the right to decide to individual States. Thirteen States had ‘trigger’ laws poised to rule out abortion in the event of such a judgement, however clinics in some States are now challenging the ruling at a local level.

Performers at Glastonbury spoke up strongly in lyrics and gestures; commentators widely pointed out that women would suffer unless the ruling was accompanied by state-funded childcare and that seeing through an unwanted pregnancy to adoption is not a risk-free solution. Pro-Life campaigners have celebrated this limitation on abortions while many corporate leaders have spoken out against it, including Priya Krishnan, Bright Horizons’ Chief Client and Experience Officer.

Neonatal Leave back in the frame and new research plans

In good news, for parents of much-wanted children who encounter challenges soon after birth, Neonatal Leave and Pay is back in front of Parliament, despite the Employment Bill not making it into the Queen’s Speech. A Private Members' Bill has been welcomed by charities and campaign groups. Of course, employers may consider introducing neonatal leave and pay without waiting for statutory pressures.

Further positive development sees NatCen Social Research establish its Centre for Children and Families, promising new levels of research into children and families.

And a creative move in Tokyo sees a change of name for parental leave, to acknowledge it is less of a ‘rest’ and more of a different kind of work. This should increase the cultural acceptance of taking leave.