Work-life week: are employers doing enough to help working parents?

This week is national work-life week, aimed at encouraging employers and employees to give some thought as to how they might better balance the demands of the workplace and the home. Laura Czapiewski, product manager for childcare vouchers at Edenred, asks what more employers could be doing to make life easier for their workers.

If there is one group in the workforce who could really do with some help in this area, it is working parents. After all, they make up almost 40% of the UK workforce. So a good question to ask is what would success look like as a result of national work-life week from the perspective of working parents? For me, there are three things which would qualify.

Raising awareness

The first would be to raise awareness of the fraught situation that many working parents find themselves in. Work-life balance is, of course, an important element here. The rise of families that need two incomes to make ends meet is a growing phenomenon. This brings pressure on time and the difficulty of needing to juggle work and home timetables between parents and children, which rarely seem to be in sync.

But just as time is stretched, so too are family finances. The fall in living standards may be slowing for the first time in years, but as research from the Institute for Employment Studies and the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed, many families can barely make ends meet thanks to a triple whammy of stagnating wages, the rising cost of living and steep increases in childcare costs.

Issues facing parents

The second area that would represent successful change would be for employers to better understand the impact of these issues on employees from both a human and business perspective. Here, a number of issues have emerged. The first is the continuing lack of support that parents feel they have from employers when it comes to managing work and family life. As a recent survey for the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion found, this is an issue for men – who are increasingly taking an equal role in childcare – as well as women, and one that has a clear link to the ability of employers to ensure that employees who are engaged with the business are contributing to their full potential.

Another issue, highlighted in recent years by research from the likes of the Institute for Employment Studies and AXA, is the performance impact of financial stress, where employees who are worried about making ends meet say that they are unable to concentrate at work and take time off as sickness absence. Logic says that the impact of this broad issue facing all employees is likely to be more acute for financially stretched working families.

Any organisation that takes either the welfare or the performance of its people seriously would do well to be aware of these trends.

Doing more

The third area in which work-life week should strike for change is in getting employers to do more to help working parents. And here, recognising the deterioration of the situation facing working parents is needed on two levels.

The first is in the strategy for supporting working parents. Although there has been a change in the challenges facing families at work, this has yet to be widely matched by employers in how they think and support working parents. We need to come up with new ideas and better ways of working.

This links to a second area that work-life week is well placed to highlight – namely, a much-needed change in the tactics we use to support working families. Childcare vouchers should be the cornerstone for any schemes, along with voluntary and/or flexible benefits that allow parents to get the right cost-efficient support they need to help stretch their wages further each month. But what is also needed is for employers to think about how good HR policy – including flexible working, changes to shift patterns and homeworking – can be translated into formal benefits that deliver real support for parents across the workforce.

A commitment to doing this must go hand in hand with employee education to help managers and employees to consider the challenges facing working parents and how they can overcome them. This is an area of growing importance that we have seen through our work with major employers that are asking for us to help make this type of information easily accessible.

This isn’t about employers taking an overbearing and paternalistic approach to supporting working parents. What is needed is for employers to embrace the need to recognise a new generation of issues facing working parents and solve them with new ways of thinking which combine HR policy and benefits to make a real difference to their employees. This is an approach that makes sense on a human level and a business level: something every employer would do well to reflect on in work-life week.

For more information on childcare vouchers, see Personnel Today’s buyers’ guide on the topic.

And if you’re looking to improve the work-life balance of your employees, see XpertHR’s good practice guide to flexible working.

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