September’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.

Appreciation for a much-admired servant-leader

The UK and Commonwealth Nations, and much of the wider world, have just finished a period of mourning for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Even many non-Royalists recognized her supreme example of servant-leadership and the constancy of her presence across 70 years as Head of State. The gathering of world leaders at her State Funeral underlined this along with the 22.5 million who watched the event across the main UK terrestrial channels.

A new PM…

In addition to a new King, the recent election of Liz Truss as leader of the Conservative Party and her appointment as UK Prime Minister is set to bring changes. During the leadership contest, one of Ms. Truss’ potential initiatives included removing the National Insurance increase that was put in place this year to fund health and social care. It was also rumoured that Liz Truss would remove standalone diversity and inclusion jobs in the Civil Service, placing more emphasis on line managers for D&I.

There has also been talk of ensuring tax breaks to support parents and carers, though not without critics saying that enabling stay-at-home parents in a couple to share tax allowances will lead to women feeling pressured to give up work

…Amid a cost of living crisis

The Cost of Living crisis continues, and worsens, making this the most pressing matter for the new PM, with the rising energy price cap and global challenges with energy supplies. In the UK, August’s price cap update meant energy bills were set to rise by 80% with the average household bill for those on default tariffs rising to £3,549 a year from October. Average annual bills were forecast to rise to £5,387 in January 2023 and £6,616 in April 2023, before the new £150bn support package was announced. Now the new Energy Price Guarantee will ensure that average household energy bills will not rise above £2,500. The support for businesses will also cap wholesale energy prices. While the issue of escalating energy prices is widespread around the world, some other countries, such as France have also set a fixed price cap.

Over four in five (83%) large businesses plan to help staff – especially essential frontline workers – with the cost of living, research by PwC shows. Employers are doing this either through direct financial support or through benefits that help with living costs. That said, one option, cashing out paid time off has proved controversial if it impacts work-life balance. Charles Cotton reward and performance adviser at the CIPD has commented that ‘employers need to consider where employees spend most of their money and how they can affect this, such as helping them to cut commuting costs, providing free transport, or paying for travel and food expenses, and looking at how to help with rent and childcare’. Our own experience has shown that supporting childcare and family life can bring relevant cost savings for employees and for employers. Bright Horizons itself was quick to ensure pay and reward were enhanced for early years practitioners earlier this year and has a range of financial wellbeing supports.

I witnessed first-hand the ‘summer of strikes’ while visiting the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh during the refuse collectors’ strike. As a visitor able to afford all the privileges of attending multiple (uplifting) shows, as well as the high price of accommodation, I experienced the smelly and messy streets but I could empathise: this was an impactful time to strike, to make a point. Former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps set out a 16-point plan to curb the influence of trades unions though it remains to be seen how newly appointed Anne-Marie Trevelyan will approach this. TU leaders such as Sharon Graham and Mick Lynch make persuasive arguments about real terms pay cuts; yet, businesses do not have unlimited resources and many employers themselves face unmanageable and escalating costs, and potential closure. Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, head of the British Chambers of Commerce and Conservative Peer has underlined the need for a package of support, potentially through tax breaks for businesses who do not even have the protection of the energy price cap.

Growing worries on access to childcare

To focus on an area close to Bright Horizons’ heart, the closure of Early Years education settings is reaching an alarming rate, described by the Early Years Alliance as the worst in 20 years. This is especially so in deprived areas, as smaller providers in particular struggle with rising costs – particularly escalating energy costs – and challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled educators.

The National Day Nurseries Association has seen a 65% higher closure rate of early years settings this summer compared with summer 2021 and also points out that according to Ofsted statistics, there was a 76 net reduction in the number of nurseries this summer term, compared to a net gain for the same period in 2021.

We saw during the pandemic lockdowns just how vital childcare provision is for parents to be able to work. The TUC, with their poll showing that 41% may struggle to find suitable care this autumn, is among those calling on Government to bring funding for the childcare sector more in line with other OECD countries.

In the immediate term, employers need to be aware that the current crisis can mean employees lose their childcare with no notice, leaving them ‘scrambling’, in the words of one BBC account, to find alternatives.

Back-Up Care can be made available to support employees who find the need to pivot their care arrangements overnight to cope with a volatile childcare provision. Workplace nurseries or workplace nursery partnerships can of course play a clear part in helping to address ongoing care and education needs.

Children also miss out on developmental opportunities when they can’t access quality childcare, so, there is a stronger focus than ever on fixing the childcare trilemma: ensuring quality, affordability and availability of early years care and education.

Employers’ continued push to support, inspire and engage

Employers are still facing a tight jobs market in which the ‘great resignation’ may have plateaued but is not stopping. And another way that people ‘leave’ without going has gone viral recently. Zaid Leppelin’s TikTok video in July on ‘Quiet Quitting’ has had over 3.5 m views. It’s a new name for a familiar concept which seems to have resonated with today’s zeitgeist: “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” he explained. “You're still performing your duties, but you're no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life; the reality is it's not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labour.”

This underlines the sense that ‘working to live’ is winning out over ‘living to work’ in terms of how jobs are viewed. Employers are working hard to enhance the employee experience which often means greater autonomy, meaning and being able to make a difference. According to Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman in HBR, it also means managers balancing results with concern for others’ needs.

That said, some people who quit recently are coming back, whether for a fresh role with a former employer, as a result of disappointment with their alternative job or due to the Great Un-retirement to cope with the cost of living.

Employers continue to look for practical cost-saving family benefits

The combination of cost of living concerns and the focus on retaining talented staff is set in a context in which the Children’s Commissioner’s just-launched Family Review has confirmed that family ‘means everything’ to so many people, in all the diverse ways we define 21st century family. When asked about what three words they first thought of when they heard the word ‘family’, the top words for children were ‘loving’, ‘happy’ and ‘home’, while for adults it was ‘loving’, ‘home’ and ‘caring’. In an open-text question on what family means to parents and children, the most common response was that ‘family is everything’. The Review also highlighted that ‘An important change in family life over the last 20 years has been the steady increase in the employment rate for mothers (from 67% in 2002 to 76% in 2021).

With this awareness, against the backdrop of cost of living and childcare availability crises, employers are continuing to look for new ways to engage working families. We know the trend to enable employees to use a part of their Back-Up Care allowance to book virtual tutoring for children and young people continues to grow. This delivers on both engagement and cost-savings. Bright Horizons’ user feedback surveys 2022 year to date show that without access to virtual tutoring, 73% of parents would have used private tutoring with an impact on family finance; 55% of parents would have ‘dedicated hours to tutoring my child directly’ and 32% would have experienced more stress at work.

In other ways of demonstrating family inclusion, June saw Slaughter and May begin a trial of once a month ‘bring your dogs to work’ days. Meanwhile Mars Wrigley innovated in job interviews by inviting partners, pets and wider family to 'Loved One Interviews' during the hiring process, with encouragement for loved ones to ask questions (not so much the pets, but the people) about flexibility and work-life fit. It was described as highlighting that ‘family values’ are important in every sense, and not just with a “traditional family”.

Amid this focus on furbabies, Bright Horizons in the US has this year extended Back-Up Care to include pet care. Watch this space for developments soon in the UK!

Around the World

Climate Change cannot be ignored

Floods in Pakistan have covered two-thirds of the country (an area equivalent to the UK), with over 1,200 people killed and more than 33 million people affected. In addition to high death and injury figures, homes, businesses and crops have been destroyed in what the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called a "climate catastrophe". The UK Government will match-fund public donations through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) up to the first £5 million.

Amid this latest devastating evidence of global climate change, it is more pressing than ever for businesses to have a clear eco-sustainability policy and a plan. At Bright Horizons, with a strong link to our role in supporting the coming generations, it’s called our Future Earth programme.

Best practice for new parents: are we keeping up?

The ten ‘best countries for working fathers’ – in terms of length of paid leave at least – are Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Norway, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Finland, and Germany. It’s hard to pick this out from the Lensa site unless you read local outputs from some of the proud nations, such as Iceland and Norway (where Government subsidized childcare is also highly valued). Japan, while offering 52 weeks’ paid paternity leave, is working to overcome cultural barriers to taking it.

The 30 best workplaces for women in Nigeria have been announced. These best workplaces include a minimum of 12 weeks; paid maternity and 2 weeks’ paid paternity leave policies, childcare provision onsite or nearby, breastfeeding facilities and other good practices. The TUC in Ghana has publicised its own ‘breastfeeding corner’, linking the provision with productivity and encouraging other employers to provide facilities too.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the CIPD has reviewed provision for working parents and is calling for longer paternity leave (6 weeks) and urging the Government to provide more support with childcare. Over half (56%) of the employers surveyed by the CIPD believe the participation rate of women with young children in the workforce would improve further if the same level of free childcare support was extended to all children aged 0–2 as for 3–4-year-olds.

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

Updated: 21st September 2022