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28 Jul 2022
by Jennifer Liston-Smith

The increasing focus on childcare and support for working parents

Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of thought leadership at Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions, outlines the latest changes to family-related issues that are affecting the workplace

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One of the revelations of the Covid pandemic was that childcare is a vital part of the social and business infrastructure. When early years education locked down – apart from provision for frontline workers – work itself became somewhere between much harder, and frankly impossible, to deliver for working parents. Children also missed out on developmental opportunities. So, there is now a stronger focus on fixing the childcare trilemma: ensuring quality, affordability and availability of early years care and education.

Amid this renewed focus, the early years sector has seen the biggest drop in the number of providers in more than six years, especially in deprived areas, as smaller providers in particular struggle to get by with rising costs – including escalating energy costs – and challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled educators. 

Concerned about availability of places and costs for working parents, the Department for Education has launched a consultation. There has been a strong and reasoned pushback from the sector and from campaigners since the option of changing ratios (increasing the number of children per adult) was first mooted, arguing that a deeper reform and fuller review of funding is required.

The Fawcett Society has also published very helpful research into childcare systems in England, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, with information on the US Build Back Better proposals. It explores the links between childcare policy and female labour market participation, as well as child development outcomes. I attended a roundtable in Westminster discussing the outcomes, feeding in the point that there is much more employers can do in supporting access to childcare (and the best ones already do).

Bright Horizons UK MD, Ros Marshall calls for a more strategic look at all the options, including valuing the role of employers in this provision: “Employers can be part of the solution. Workplace nurseries or workplace nursery partnerships play a clear part in helping to address the accessibility and affordability of early years provision. We recognise that a workplace partnership requires investment, but all of the companies we work with say that it’s a worthwhile one, and for their employees it ranks as one of their top benefits.”

Building culture in the new world of work

Speaking at the REBA Employee Wellbeing Congress, Dr Eliza Filby reminded us that, for Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2010), the “workplace is oddly different from their social media feed” and that they are used to being heard: “they’ve had a smartphone since they were 13” and have the capacity to speak truth to power. While Dr Wolfgang Seidl and Alanna Rae from Mercer Marsh Benefits shared film clips of young people still in school with high expectations of flexibility and wellbeing as priorities in the future of work.

In this context, figuring out how to (re)build culture in our post-pandemic world, fit for changing expectations, and with a pressing need to attract and retain skilled people, is a priority. Our webinar on culture with HRreview attracted a large and engaged audience. Trust, authenticity and shared values were key among the many insights and practical tips discussed by Denise Priest and Janine Leightley of Bright Horizons and Ben Gautrey of Great Place to Work.

Meanwhile, employers continue to develop models of hybrid working, supported by evidence and research, including an ACAS survey showing a rise in new ways of working, and a CIPD survey showing widespread adoption of hybrid despite some senior decision-makers assuming that a fuller return to office will come in due course.

A recording of our own contribution to the REBA Congress – Practical wellbeing strategies to empower working parents and carers – highlighted the consistent evidence that an inclusive and high-performing culture should include ‘a strong parental infrastructure’. A recent report, Women in Finance 2022 Blueprint, produced with Bain Capital showcases the kind of support put in place by high profile Bright Horizons clients. Enabling parents with practical support is credited with playing a role in women progressing in the workplace and closing the gender pay gap.

Overturning Roe v Wade has been divisive, to say the least

In a review of news affecting working parents and carers, we should not overlook the recent US Supreme Court decision affecting those who seek choice about when, how, and whether to start a family. The judegment in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization (Dobbs being state health officer of the Mississippi Department of Health) held that the US ‘Constitution does not confer a right to abortion,’ returning the right to decide to individual States. Thirteen States had ‘trigger’ laws poised to rule out abortion in the event of such a judgement, however clinics in some States are now challenging the ruling at a local level.

Commentators widely pointed out that women would suffer unless the ruling was accompanied by state-funded childcare and that seeing through an unwanted pregnancy to adoption is not a risk-free solution. Pro-Life campaigners have celebrated this limitation on abortions while many corporate leaders have spoken out against it, including Priya Krishnan, Bright Horizons’ Chief Client and Experience Officer.

Neonatal Leave back in the frame 

Neonatal Leave and Pay is back in front of Parliament, despite the Employment Bill not making it into the Queen’s Speech. A Private Members' Bill has been welcomed by charities and campaign groups. Of course, employers may consider introducing neonatal leave and pay without waiting for statutory pressures.

In partnership with Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions

Bright Horizons is dedicated to providing the best in class work+family solutions.

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