On The Horizon – July 2023

Jennifer Liston-Smith’s monthly review reflects on key themes, news and public policy updates in the world of combining work and family for organisations, parents and carers.

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

  1. Employers continue to emphasise benefits packages, wellbeing and office-based working

Aviva's 2023 Working Lives Report: ‘Fit for Future’ shows that '93% of employees said workplace benefits – other than salary – improve their overall happiness. This is up from 2022 (88%) and 2019 (86%)’. Almost three quarters (74%) of the employers surveyed plan to improve their workplace benefits package, with one in five (20%) planning to do so within the next 12 months.’

There is also ongoing emphasis on ensuring employees benefit from collaboration in offices and central workplaces. According to research by Global events company Hyve Group, in collaboration with Professor Barbara Sahakian from the University of Cambridge, 60% of professionals expressed concerns about the long-term negative impacts of the earlier lockdowns on their mental wellbeing and brain function. A quarter (25%) reported feeling more disengaged with their work post-pandemic, with 15% admitting to “quiet quitting” as a consequence of remote or hybrid working arrangements. Over half (54%) reported feeling more energised when meeting colleagues, friends, family, or networking in person.

Workplace nurseries of course play a role in central offices being an attractive place to return to, now that ‘72% of companies globally have mandated a return to the office’ according to remote workspace company Unispace. The same article goes on: ‘Software company Salesforce has started a scheme in its American offices which donates $10 to local charities each day employees come in between 12 June and 23 June’. Alongside such schemes, salary sacrifice schemes for workplace or near-site nurseries mean employees make substantial tax and National Insurance savings as well as saving employers National Insurance Contributions.

  1. A Life Stages approach to family life

Among the seven events for our HR community that I chaired or spoke at during the second half of June, was the highly engaging annual Reba Wellbeing Congress. The audience there responded with great recognition to the proposition that the way we see family – and hence family support – has radically developed over recent decades. Our lovely Creative team had created this graphic to depict this, moving from a far-away time when the ‘ideal’ worker was a man who naturally had a wife at home looking after the children, through to diverse interpretations of family and all of family life being much more present with us at work: something Bright Horizons has been well aware of with the development of as an aspect of Back-Up Care. 

Another way in which we have seen employers embrace more stages of family life is through adding virtual tutoring to Back-Up Care, which is inclusive of parents of older children. Since launching our partnership with Explore Learning in August 2021 we have supported over 2,100 children of our client families in this way, and our Back-Up Care Operations team has recorded a 179% increase in use of this service January to May 2023 compared to same period 2022. As one parent put it: ‘A fantastic staff benefit, that makes me feel valued as an employee. As I now feel more in control, I feel less stressed about home issues, which in turn allows me to focus more on work as I have less distractions and worries.’

Another area of family-life inclusivity recently in the media is ensuring men can take adequate parental leave. Joint research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) and Women in Data shows the societal and economic impact of paternity leave, finding countries with more than six weeks of paid paternity leave have a 4% smaller gender wage gap and 3.7% smaller labour force participation gap. Closing gender employment gaps in all UK authorities would increase economic output by £23 billion.

Further on the parent transition, according to recent research by Code First Girls and TTC, half of women in tech drop out by age 35. Recommendations for empowering women to continue their careers include a better supported parent transition and ongoing support for family. One of the trends we have noticed in relation to our award-winning Parental Leave Toolkit and coaching for team members and managers is that organisations increasingly want to get this right globally, with a consistent offering.

As the Times Top 50 for Gender Equality list is released, rather full of Bright Horizons clients, we’re pleased to see, employers are also continuing to place emphasis on supports that empower gender equality for women. Among them, Menstruation, Menstrual Health & Menopause in the Workplace, on which The British Standards Institute (BSI) has introduced a ground-breaking workplace standard. The new guidance (BS 30416) ‘offers practical recommendations and strategies to help employers meet the needs of individuals going through these natural processes while retaining their experienced and talented staff.’

In line with the above themes, comes an insight from our recent round of Bright Horizons Peer Council breakfast round-tables for clients. Across our recent gatherings for the finance, legal and bio-tech/pharm sectors, pre-event polling showed talent attraction & retention, together with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Wellbeing top the list of employer focal points. Cost of living tends to sit slightly lower down the list, however, as this HR Magazine article points out: ‘The latest Bank of England interest base rate rise should have HR teams thinking about the financial and wellbeing support they offer staff, experts say. With interest rates now at 5%, there are fears that mortgage holders are facing a difficult outlook. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted 1 million households will lose at least 20% of their disposable income as interest rates increase on mortgages. Driven by transport costs, food costs, and some luxury items, the rate of inflation is still at 8.7%.' Which brings us back to the feedback on virtual tutoring as a use of back-up care. One parent told us: ‘My daughter is taking her GCSEs this year, she really struggles with maths and always has done. She really enjoyed the session and thought the tutor was brilliant. This is an amazing benefit provided through work as tutoring is normally expensive and would be especially hard to find during the cost of living crisis. It has taken a weight off my shoulders which should ultimately improve my work as it's one less thing to worry about!’

  1. Carers are still less visible at work

Carers UK recently published a look back at the success of Carers Week earlier in June, including a signpost to their research showing '73% of people in the UK who are providing, or have provided, unpaid care in their lifetime - roughly 19 million people - have not identified themselves as a carer.’

We very much appreciated having Katherine Wilson, Head of Employment and Specialist Delivery at Carers UK as well as Kim Chaplain, Specialist Advisor, Work at the Centre for Ageing Better join our panel for our HRreview webinar on 15th June on older workers and carers, well worth a listen-again for its range of strategic and practical advice on how employers can attract, retain and engage this sought-after talent group.

What we know from our Back-Up Care operations team is that use of back-up care for adult dependants has increased 122% in the period January to May in 2023 compared to 2022.

We also applauded our client Aon this month for introducing a week of paid carers' leave, ahead of the one week of unpaid carers’ leave which is now due to come into legislation since the new Act recently received Royal Assent. An article on this in Employee Benefits also covered the Parents & Carers Network events provided by Bright Horizons as well as our Back-Up Care service (attributed there to our legacy business My Family Care).

  1. Ofsted report highlights common challenges and aspirations across early years sector in Europe

A report, published by Ofsted on 20th June, has shown, regarding OECD countries “many countries have implemented measures to increase participation in early years provision, although the difficulty of recruiting and retaining a highly skilled early years workforce continues to present challenges to this ambition.”

The study covers four themes:

  • availability and access
  • workforce
  • curriculum and pedagogy
  • inspection and regulation

Key findings include challenges with recruitment and retention of early years education staff being widespread and having an impact on the availability of places, elsewhere in Europe as in the UK: “Workforce shortages have serious implications … Germany has been unable to meet demand after expanding the legal entitlement to an early years place to cover all children over the age of one. Workforce shortages have contributed to this, and the problem is likely to worsen in the coming years as staff retire.” The report also observes: “Across the OECD, countries also struggle to recruit men into the workforce. For example, men make up an average of only 3.2% of pre-primary teachers.”

The Women’s Budget Group has predicted that an increase of 38,000 workers in the sector will be needed to fulfil demand when the planned new funded places come into effect, staggered between April 2024 and September 2025. Bright Horizons has seen many employers enquiring about the best ways to secure childcare places for their staff given that demand may outstrip supply, with Workplace Nurseries and Nursery Partnerships among the options explored.

Other Ofsted findings include the need to ensure that provision focuses on Education as well as Care: “Some countries do not have curriculum requirements for younger children (those under 3), and qualification and professional development requirements for staff are often lower. In England, the early years curriculum framework starts from birth. The curriculum is seen as crucial for guiding what children need to learn next. A well-considered curriculum, implemented throughout the early years phase, ensures that all children can make good progress.”

This insight matches the thinking behind the recently-launched Nurture Approach professional development programme developed by Bright Horizons in the UK in partnership with clinical psychologist, Dr Sarah Mundy. The programme focuses on child development, neuroscience and helping adults to understand the impact of their role in supporting children’s emotional wellbeing through building strong, supporting relationships.

The nurture programme supports the continuous development and wellbeing of the staff who deliver the Bright Beginnings curriculum which covers the Early Years Foundation Stage while holding a central focus on wellbeing and resilience. Bright Horizons Director of Early Childhood, Caroline Wright, has commented: “We have observed how practitioners’ confidence in using Bright Beginnings and their understanding of the holistic nature of children’s learning and development has grown ... To fully complement our curriculum, we’ve identified through research and practice that there is a need to provide practitioners with a greater depth of knowledge and understanding about wellbeing, and the associated concepts of early brain development, emotional development, co-regulation and self-regulation.”

Both Caroline Wright and Michelle Demirtas, Area Director of Early Childhood at Bright Horizons with responsibility for Emotional Wellbeing were invited to speak again in Panama this summer at the World Forum on Early Care and Education, having spoken at last year’s Forum in Florida.

Coming back to the Ofsted research, it concludes: “Children only get one childhood, and a good early education sets the foundation for educational success, well-being and good health. This is why we emphasise the importance of the curriculum. A well-considered curriculum and a good knowledge of what children know and what they need to learn next are crucial. The curriculum should be ambitious for all children, regardless of starting points or background, because all children should be able to achieve their full potential.”