November’s ‘Monthly Horizon’ Work+Family News

Jennifer Liston-Smith’s monthly blog for employers reflects on recent news and themes in the world of combining work and family for organisations, parents and carers.

March of the Mummies, the vital role of childcare and the difficulty in accessing it

October 29th saw more than 15,000 join the March of the Mummies around the UK with the biggest presence in Trafalgar Square. The march, led by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS), called for more Government funding for childcare, more equal parental leave and better access to flexible working. The argument was made that all of these would help labour market participation at a time of skills gap. A survey carried out in August by PTS found that 18 per cent of parents were not able to find childcare to meet their needs due to a lack of availability; another 17 per cent had to reduce their hours due to a lack of childcare options.

Bright Horizons’ employer clients are making a highly positive difference here with onsite or near-site nurseries saving tax and National Insurance for employees and employers. For those without access to employer support, Bright Horizons has been working to raise awareness of the tax-free childcare scheme which goes some way to helping with costs.

This link between access to good quality affordable childcare and employment is recognised around the world with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking recently in Adelaide about plans for cheaper childcare meaning more women can participate in the workforce. In the UK, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show more women – and men – giving up work due to childcare commitments. At the same time, many – especially smaller – early years settings are being forced to close down, due to rising costs such as energy and staffing, meaning outgoings are higher than income. 

When Australian PM Albanese spoke about the vital role of childcare in employment, he also underlined the importance of brain development in the first five years. The decisive contribution of socialisation for child development in the early years has been in the news in the UK: there has been a rise of 10% in 5 and 6 years olds needing speech and language support, which experts put down to lack of opportunities to socialise during pandemic lockdowns.

Flexible and family-friendly working back in Parliamentary debate

Several Private Members Bills are progressing through Parliament, picking up some of the commitments promised for an Employment Bill that did not progress during the pandemic. These will address Carer’s Leave, protection from redundancy following parental leave and flexible working.

The Government has backed Dan Jarvis MP’s Bill which will bring in protection from redundancy before commencing maternity leave (from the time of notifying an employer of pregnancy) and on return from maternity. As an inclusive step, protection on return will also extend to adoption and shared parental leave as well as maternity meaning those taking these types of leave who may face redundancy within 18 months following the start of their leave must be offered priority access to suitable alternative roles. This protection comes in a context where maternity discrimination does come before tribunals with worrying frequency. Supermarket employee Donna Paterson’s experiences of what amounted to a demotion while on leave and full time expectations with a part-time contract on return resulted in her award of £60K compensation.

Wendy Chamberlain MP’s Carer’s Leave Bill putting forward provision of a week of unpaid leave had its second reading as a Private Member’s Bill on 21st October.

Yasmin Qureshi MP’s Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill has also got through its second reading. This is set to remove the requirement for employees to explain in their applications the effect they think a change in working arrangements will have on the employer. Bright Horizons’ coaches have often helped individuals make a strong win-win business case for their working arrangements to an employer and no doubt this thinking will continue to be helpful though not required.

The Bill will also allow for employees to make two flexible working requests a year (instead of one); impose a duty on the employer to consult with the employee before any refusal of an application for flexible working; and reduce the deadline for an employer's decision on flexible working requests from three months to two months. The Bill in its current form does not include a ‘Day 1 right to request’ (for new employees) though this is likely to come up in parliamentary debates on the Bill.

Bright Horizons signs Mindful Business Charter

Continuing on the subject of more employee-friendly ways of working, Bright Horizons has joined several other new signatories to the Mindful Business Charter. As the Charter was founded by banks and law firms, we join many of the employers we partner with in this commitment to ensure business is conducted in ways that avoid unnecessary stress within and across organisations and favour thoughtful dealings between providers and those they serve. As well as joining our clients in the Charter signatories as a business service provider Bright Horizons is also the first in the Early Years Education sector to sign up to the Charter.

Interest rates and the Cost of Living

Since the former Prime Minister and Chancellor’s mini-budget, it’s possible that our collective level of awareness of monetary policy as a UK nation has increased. We all seem to have views on how to run the economy; though none of us really envied the Bank of England, setting interest rates ahead of the fiscal statement coming on 17th November. The 3rd November saw the eighth consecutive increase in base interest rates since December 2021, with a rise of ¾ of 1% pushing the base rate to 3%, its highest level for 14 years. The aim of the interest rate increase is to steady the recent rise in inflation (standing at around 10%) by discouraging consumer borrowing and spending. This biggest single increase since 1989 has hit many variable rate mortgage holders particularly hard. We’re not alone: other central banks around the world have raised rates, responding to inflation. The US central bank recently raised its key interest rate to the highest level for nearly 15 years.

We took the Cost of Living as our theme for our Inside HR webinar with Hrreview on 13th October. The discussion, chaired by James Marsh, with Sarah Jackson OBE, visiting Professor at Cranfield, Alastair Woods, Partner at PwC and Bright Horizons underlined that in-work poverty may be affecting more people than we imagine; that employers see cost of living support as one piece with combatting attrition, bolstering employee experience, and attracting or retaining talented employees across all generations, including returning older workers, coming out of retirement. PwC research has shown over 4 in 5 employers have already taken steps to support in some way and half already plan to make a further investment in 2023.

In terms of what helps, the consensus was that immediate financial support matters, and it is also important for wider support to be available tailored to different groups. Employers should ask (not assume) what people want and need in terms of day-to-day, cost-savings measures such as discounts or help with food or travel and pay attention to flexible, personalised supports and benefits that can help certain groups such as parents and carers with everything from tax savings through employer-sponsored childcare through to back-up care and parental leave programmes.

A survey of 900 hybrid workers by Instaprint in September suggested 85% will find working from the office more appealing this winter, particularly among younger workers, given worries over heating homes. Temperature control and free food and drinks were part of strong office appeal alongside the ability to collaborate. HRreview Editor, Amelia Brand, has linked the likely rise in workers coming back to the office with the potential mental health impacts of letting go of working from home, warning employers to pay particular attention to mental health as more workers change their lifestyles in a quest to save money on home heating.

International Men’s Day

Taking place on 19th November, thethree core themes for International Men’s Day in the UK which are used every year to help maximise participation are:

  • Making a positive difference to the wellbeing and lives of men and boys
  • Raising awareness and/or funds for charities supporting men and boys’ wellbeing
  • Promoting a positive conversation about men, manhood and masculinity

Our Inside HR webinar with HRreview on 17th November will explore how employers can – and do – support equal parenting from shared parental leave through the ongoing stages of family life. As well as Bright Horizons voices, we’ll hear from Dr. Sarah Forbes at the University or York, part of the Equal Parenting Project and Han-Son Lee founder of Daddilife.

Energy and the Environment

There is some possibility of planned energy-saving blackouts this winter with 24 hours notice to consider and prepare, for all except priority businesses. While the CIPD’s HR-Inform urges HR leaders to plan ahead for such events, there is a bigger collective need – to review overall global energy use, carbon release and global heating – being debated at COP27 hosted by Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Sober bodies such as Chatham House now comment on the climate crisis in extreme terms: ‘The world’s leading scientific authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states that the world is now in extraordinarily dangerous territory. Every small delay to proportionate action on mitigation and adaptation is a move closer to irredeemable damage to the climate and its ability to meet human needs.’ Meanwhile The Economist points out that the cherished target of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels has become extremely hard to reach. Since the most-streamed songs from 70 years of the music charts were recently-revealed,  can we hold on to Journey’s title from 1981: ‘Don’t Stop Believing’? UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is attending COP27 with a focus on the growth opportunities in the green agenda. Bright Horizons’ environmental sustainability programme is called Future Earth.

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons