On The Horizon March 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

March’s Key Themes for employers of working parents and carers

  1. Childcare tops the list of the CBI’s proposals to solve labour market shortages.

The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and two influential Think Tanks are the latest to call for childcare reform and investment to help solve the UK’s labour market shortages.

The CBI sees childcare as key to economic engagement and the growth of the UK economy and has called on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to invest a further £9 billion, expanding places for one and two year olds, to help people back into work in light of skills shortages.

Director of Economic Policy at the CBI, Louise Hellem has said: “The Government must address the workforce challenges head on. We know many working parents limit their hours because of childcare costs .... Too many people still find it unaffordable to go back to work in the early years, so Government needs to look at providing the same free childcare provision for one and two years olds, as we have for three and four.”

A report from the think tank Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), based on survey results of 2,545 mothers, shows 27% of mothers would like to work more hours if they had access to suitable childcare, The lost economic output is estimated between £27bn and £38bn, the equivalent of 1% of GDP. Based on the survey results, CPP also estimates that an additional ‘540,000 mothers have been prevented from getting paid work, 880,000 have cut down their hours, and 470,000 have quit their jobs’.

Given this emphasis by business on the pivotal role of childcare in powering the UK workforce, it is worrying that providers – particularly smaller ones – are finding it hard to keep their childcare settings open. A survey by the Early Years Alliance in January 2023, with 1,156 responses from early years providers, found more than a third of preschools, nurseries and childminders say it is likely that rising costs will force the closure of their setting within the next year, with a quarter (25%) describing this as “somewhat likely” and almost one in ten (9%) stating it would be “very likely”.

Bright Horizons’ large portfolio of around 300 settings and diversified business model including back-up care and other employer services is resilient, however not all providers have the same scope. A nursery owner in Coventry explained to Sky News that she has taken on additional work as a cleaner herself in order to cover costs for her staff and the nursery.

The Resolution Foundation points out that “Britain risks ending the decade with the lowest rates of workforce participation in almost 30 years unless the government takes urgent action to reform childcare and help people with health conditions”. It has urged the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to act at his Spring Budget, on 15th March to focus on supporting parents to return to work, as well as ensuring sufficient help is available for older workers and those with health issues or a disability. Robin Walker, the Conservative chair of the education select committee, has said: the Treasury should definitely look very carefully at proposals to reform childcare, including extending funded places to one-year olds, adding “they should consider how much money it will save in the long term [through increased economic activity] rather than just how much it will cost upfront".

Meanwhile, there is a steady movement among employers toward subsidising childcare costs for employees, which addresses both affordability and availability of quality care. The need is underlined by the Modern Families Index (MFI) 2023 finding that working parents (75% of fathers and 77% of mothers) have needed to take time off to fulfil childcare responsibilities in the last year. Help with care provision also means employees are more likely to recommend their employer to other employees, important with skills in short supply. Our Work+Family Snapshot (client employee) research in 2022 showed Back-Up Care made 88% more likely to recommend their employer and employer-subsidised nursery places for regular care had a similar positive impact for 75%. This is particularly noteworthy when 58% of UK employers believe that they will lose staff in the next six months, according to new research by global talent services company, Morgan McKinley.

  1. Employers continue to emphasise Employee Experience

The Top Employers Institute’s latest research, among nearly 100 certified UK Top Employers shows improving the employee experience is their highest people priority for 2023, with wellbeing at its heart. Five in six (83%), have a wellbeing champion in their workforce (against a 55% average for the rest of the world), and over two-thirds (69%) involve their employees in designing their wellbeing offer (58% worldwide). Meanwhile, Great Place to Work®, a global leader on workplace culture, recently released its Best Workplaces™ for Wellbeing list and for the second year running Bright Horizons has been listed in the top 30 in the Super Large category.

One important element of employee experience is the perception that it’s possible to combine flexibility with career progression. A sense of forced choice between work-life balance and career development has been a key driver of the gender pay gap for women, and of disengagement for working fathers. This year’s Modern Families Index has seen an uptick in women’s and men’s optimism about combining flex with advancement. Two-thirds of the UK’s working parents (68% of men and 67% of women) are now optimistic that they can combine flexible working with career progression. Back in 2022, just 55% believed this (61% men; 49% women).

Different forms of flexibility have been much discussed recently, including the two days of stimulating exploration and insights hosted by Ursula Tavender and Madeline Cole, co-founders of Flexpo. The results of the UK 4-day week trial have shown that 91% of the 61 trial organisations plan to continue with a 4-day week in future. 4% of participants will definitely not continue. The concept is based on the 100-80-100™ model designed by founder, Charlotte Lockhart, meaning 100% of the pay, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output.

Authors Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst believe the future is for everyone to define their own Workstyle with freedom to choose when and where to work. This envisages work fitting around life in a digital-first, asynchronous, trust-based approach, with autonomy balanced by accountability for delivery of outcomes. This, of course, is most suited to knowledge workers. Han-Son Lee, Founder of Daddilife facilitated a fireside chat on ‘How to create a culture that supports dads at work so they can work flexibly without fear of harming their career’, with Elliott Rae, Founder, MusicFootballFatherhood and Paul Morgan-Bentley, Head of Investigations, The Times. The panel called for employers to take on board the business case for better parental leave, flexibility and direct support for dads, as part of attracting and retaining skilled people. Bright Horizons’ own Think Tank on ‘What kind of flexibility really delivers work/family balance and productivity?’ agreed with recent HR media coverage that employers will need to move beyond flexibility towards practical support. If flexibility is more readily offered by most employers, it is harder for brands to differentiate their employee value proposition in a tight labour market. Employers are now going the extra mile with practical supports for family life such as help with care provision, family networks and employee resource groups,coaching and similar supports in addition to flexibility.

A recent HBR article featuring research by Maureen Perry-Jenkins, professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst illustrated that boosting working parents’ employee experience also improves outcomes for the next generation. A longitudinal study followed over 370 low-wage, working-class families for more than ten years, and found children’s developmental outcomes were directly and significantly affected by their parents’ work lives. Workers who had more autonomy and more-supportive supervisors and co-workers were warmer and more engaged when interacting with their infants. “These children then grew up to have better reading and maths skills, better social skills, and fewer behavioural problems in the first grade, suggesting that an employee’s workplace experiences immediately before and during the transition into parenthood can have long-lasting effects on the development of their children. In light of these findings, the author argues that making sure employees feel respected and supported isn’t just an investment in today’s workforce — it’s an investment in the next generation as well.”

  1. #EmbraceEquity and #DigitALL for International Women’s Day 8th March

International Women’s Day (IWD) dates back to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding better working conditions, the right to vote, and an end to discrimination: the first IWD was observed the following year in the US. The UN theme for IWD 2023, on 8th March is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. The United Nations intends this theme to recognise and celebrate the women and girls who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital education and also to point out that ‘Bringing women and other marginalized groups into technology results in more creative solutions and has greater potential for innovations that meet women’s needs and promote gender equality.’

There is a different, and more general, 2023 theme on the International Women’s Day site: #EmbraceEquity. Here, people of every gender are encouraged to ‘Celebrate women's achievement. Raise awareness about discrimination. Take action to drive gender parity’ including ‘celebrating women's achievements and increasing visibility, while calling out inequality’.

Some dissenting voices have emerged over this campaign and its suggested ‘stance’, including Dr Michelle Penelope King, author of bestselling book: The Fix and host of the podcast by the same name. King states: “I am disappointed but not surprised that this year's International Women's Day (IWD), theme/action is essentially asking women to hug themselves and take a selfie”.

One message here – which perhaps all would agree on – is that it is systems that must change, removing barriers, rather than placing all emphasis on the women themselves. The CIPD HR-Inform resource carries advice for employers on how to #EmbraceEquity. This includes recognising that everyone's situation is unique and allocating the precise resources and opportunities needed to achieve an equal outcome. Some of the necessary steps include: “Amplify diverse voices: encourage employees from underrepresented groups to speak up and share their perspectives and ensure that diverse voices are heard and valued in decision-making processes. Provide resources for work-life balance: offer resources and support for employees to achieve work-life balance, such as subsidised childcare, enhanced family-related leave, and mental health support.”

One recent note of progress, almost literally ‘levelling the playing field’ was the news that the Rugby Football Union now offers 26 weeks’ fully-paid new parent leave and childcare support.

Legal and public policy updates

Statutory pay rises

A reminder that Family leave pay (such as statutory maternity, paternity, adoption, shared parental leave and parental bereavement pay) will be rising by just over 10% to £172.48 in April. At the same time, the National Living Wage will see its largest ever increase to break the £10 barrier for over 23s, increasing by 9.7% from £9.50 to £10.42 per hour. The Government’s target is for the National Living Wage to reach two-thirds of median earnings by 2024.

Women’s Pay Day’ was marked on 24th February by the TUC as the day when women start earning, if the Gender Pay Gap is taken into account

Spain menstrual leave https://www.hr-inform.co.uk/news-article/will-menstrual-leave-come-to-the-uk

The Carer’s Leave Bill, having successfully passed through the House of Commons, had its second reading in the House of Lords on 3rd March

Finally, an insight into the potential development of ‘quiet quitting’ into more of a legal concept: “US Law firm Napoli Shkolnik has filed a lawsuit against one of its own attorneys, claiming the lawyer collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the New York-based firm while taking advantage of remote work to focus on her own practice. The lawsuit alleges that Heather Palmore “quiet quit”—a purported trend in which employees do the absolute bare minimum required by their job—after conning Napoli Shkolnik into hiring her by misrepresenting her qualifications. This is believed to be the first suit of its kind filed as employers grapple with hybrid work practices."