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21 Nov 2023
by Jennifer Liston Smith

Performance vs empathy: do employers have to choose?

Jennifer Liston-Smith of Bright Horizons reflects on key themes, news and public policy updates in the world of combining work and family for organisations, parents and carers

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There a tension facing HR leaders. The expectations of the workforce in general – and Gen Z in particular – regarding work-life balance and support for family life are well established, even if some employers are better at appealing to Gen Z through gamified training than through a genuine understanding of boundaries around work-life fit.

Employers are doing more than before and expectations are still rising: according to talent services firm Morgan McKinley’s 2024 Salary Guide, almost six in 10 British workers are unhappy with their benefits packages.

With the labour market still tight due to skills shortages, there is competition to offer the most attractive employment.

But we live in uncertain times and there are cost pressures. Employers are looking for the most effective ways to invest to ensure a real return in productivity, wellbeing and engagement.

This dichotomy is the topic of a debate for senior leaders to be hosted by Bright Horizons with Hogan Lovells on 29 November.

A range of approaches

The topic has been relevant throughout this year: we explored similar themes several months ago in one of our InsideHR webinars with HRreview. Tracey Ismay, People Partner at Bright Horizons client Swiss Re emphasised the importance of a range of approaches to invest in employee wellbeing alongside productivity. Ismay cited flexibility and hybrid working, support with the cost of living, HR coffee chats and practical support such as back-up care.

Swiss Re’s decision a year ago to extend back-up care to the provision of virtual tutoring means this absence management tool has also become a wellbeing support by easing parents’ mental load over education and development. Back-up care covering summer holiday clubs also eases the pressure during school holidays, as well as meaning employees are present for work.

In the last month, we have further explored the themes that are top of mind for employers in our October/November round of Peer Council meetings for our clients, where small groups of Bright Horizons partners gather over breakfast to share insights on themes that are top of mind as well as gaining insights from our latest research.

For the legal sector, main concerns reported were talent retention; talent attraction; diversity, equity and inclusion; and employee wellbeing.

For the banking and finance sector, the top themes were employee wellbeing; employee engagement and experience; hybrid/office-based/remote working; productivity and efficiency; and the employer’s role in childcare.

How childcare can affect career progression

That concern over the employer’s role in childcare is highly topical in light of a new report, Paths to parenthood: Uplifting new mothers at work, from Totaljobs and the Fawcett Society.

This shows that “the ongoing challenges that come with balancing childcare with work have forced more than 249,124 working mothers of children aged four or under to leave their employer due to a lack of childcare support”.

The report emphasises the economic as well as personal impact of parents feeling trapped in roles below their capability. Findings show more than two-fifths (41%) have turned down a promotion or career development opportunity due to concerns it wouldn’t fit in with their childcare arrangements, and 85% of mothers struggle to find jobs that can accommodate their childcare needs.

This fits with Bright Horizons’ own findings in its annual Modern Families Index which consistently shows that around three-quarters of working parents carefully consider their childcare options before accepting a job or promotion, peaking at 83% of 18-34 year olds.

Bright Horizon’s webinar on 7 December will explore the options for employer-sponsored childcare with Shaun Anderson, Operations Manager from Bright Horizons client First Direct.

Working mothers feel undervalued

The Fawcett Society and Totaljobs research involved a survey of 3,000 working parents with children aged four and under along with 500 HR decision makers from UK businesses. A key message to employers is that three-quarters (76%) remain just as ambitious after having a child, with 44% saying they are more ambitious. However, 68% of working mothers feel their capabilities and contributions are sometimes undervalued or overlooked in the workplace. 

More than seven in 10 (72%) of working parents have had to take unpaid leave due to childcare responsibilities, with “higher rates for women from non-white backgrounds (79%) and single mothers (73%)”. This is a strong argument for the role of back-up care in inclusion strategies as well as in absence management for the whole workforce.

Flexibility is discussed as a key support. Contrary to popular perception, the findings show working mothers are finding it harder to secure flexible working than working fathers: 43% of working fathers that have requested flexible working have it approved vs 39% of working mothers. Nearly seven in 10 (69%) of mothers were not offered flexible work arrangements during their transition back to work. 

The report finds that more than eight in 10 (83%) of HR leaders reported improved productivity when the right support is provided. Some 70% saw better employee retention and 69% believe having the right policies in place resulted in increased employee attraction.

Jane Lorigan, CEO of Totaljobs has called on employers to:

  • Track the progress of working mothers when they return from maternity leave.
  • Create a clear policy framework.
  • Clearly signpost the support available.

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