With extremely high childcare fees and many grandparents still working due to increases in retirement age and the cost of living, working parents often have a difficult decision to make. Do they stay in work and pay for childcare, or leave the workforce?
Realistically, the only way that both parents can stay in employment is if their employer accepts some sort of flexible working. The pandemic highlighted the modern reality for working parents, trying to juggle their professional and personal obligations, and since then employers have shown an increased commitment to implementing working practices that offer a more manageable work-life balance.
According to a recent survey by the CBI, almost all (96%) of line managers questioned said they had become more flexible about employees’ location of work, while 87% said they were more open to how employees scheduled their working hours. Partly as a result of the flexible furlough scheme, almost two-thirds (60%) also said they were willing to consider employees’ requests for part-time working.
Such a seismic shift in attitude has seen some employers look to tackle the unique challenge posed by school holidays – a time when working parents are scrambling to book annual leave or face the expense of costly school holiday club fees.
Recently Amazon announced it was allowing workers to opt for a contract whereby they would work term time only. Currently, every worker in the UK has the right to request flexible working – not just parents and carers – after they have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks. But Amazon’s policy is slightly different in that a worker doesn’t have to have been employed for a certain amount of time – they can utilise this working pattern from the moment they start because it’s in their contract.
These term-time contracts are aimed at parents, grandparents and guardians of school-aged children and guarantee time off for the six-week summer holidays, as well as the Easter and Christmas holidays.
What are the benefits of term-time contracts for businesses?
To essentially lose talented employees for chunks of the year may cause employers to take an initial sharp intake of breath, but there are significant benefits to offering this level of flexibility.
For parents, who now have the opportunity to spend quality time with their children during the holidays, they can focus fully on their work during term time without having to continually organise childcare which can be stressful. This not only reduces absenteeism, but employees are more focused, motivated, creative and productive, which boosts workplace culture, enhances a business’ brand and reputation, and ultimately its bottom line.
As highlighted in the CBI survey, flexible contracts are particularly attractive for many job-seeking parents. Figures published in 2022 showed that 43,000 women had to drop out of the workforce to look after family in the preceding 12 months – a 3% increase on the previous year. But stats also showed that a growing number of men were leaving too because of family commitments – 36,000 which was 15% up on the previous year. Offering contracts designed to attract and retain members of this woefully-neglected work pool means businesses will benefit from top talent which in the past has been allowed to leak from the workforce.
And, in some cases, introducing term-time contracts won’t cause much disruption at all. Depending on the nature of the business, there may be seasonal variations in workload which means such an arrangement could be accommodated easily.
What are other countries doing to support working parents?
Some countries have already embraced flexible contracts to support working parents and benefit the wellbeing of all employees.
Finland, for example, offered flexible working before it was popular! Back in 1996, it passed the Working Hours Act which gave employees the right to start or finish three hours earlier or later than their core working hours so people could spend more time with their families and exercise during daylight hours. In 2020, the Act was upgraded so people had the right to choose where and when they work for at least 50% of their working hours to help manage childcare more easily.
Following the pandemic, Portugal was one of the first countries to legislate for remote working. Its laws now state that companies cannot contact employees outside of working hours, companies must contribute to expenses incurred by working from home such as electricity bills, and parents can work from home without arranging it with their employers in advance.
Meanwhile, with 150 days of transferable leave and a total of 480 days of maternity and paternity leave, parents in Sweden benefit from some of the most flexible working arrangements. Giving both parents equal parental leave promotes equality in the workplace and ensures both parents can spend time with their children in their most formative years.
Why aren’t more large-scale organisations in the UK doing more?
There are a number of reasons why big businesses may be shying away from offering term-time contracts or similar support.
- Concerns over the practicalities
It’s fair to say that the feasibility of term-time working will vary across industries. Some sectors, such as education, will naturally align with an academic calendar, while others such as hospitality, may find it more challenging.
Careful thinking is required around job design and how those working a term-time pattern are integrated into the wider workforce pattern to make sure any potential operational challenges are overcome. Effective communication is also crucial, especially to ensure employees without children feel like they are being treated fairly and they have their own flexible working opportunities.
- They are already fulfilling their legal obligations
In regards to the support offered to parents at the start of a child’s life, the UK scores quite highly.
Eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, up to two weeks’ paternity leave or 50 weeks’ shared parental leave.
However, there remains a role for business to support employees beyond the first months of parenthood, which often gets forgotten. If anything, throughout the years, things get busier for working parents, especially when children start school and have more active social lives.
However, there is no specific legislation – such as in the case of Portugal – which gives employees an automatic right to flexible working. According to current law, employees can make a flexible working request only if they’ve worked for same employer for the last 26 weeks and they can only make one request every 12 months. In the eyes of some large-scale organisation, they are already meeting their obligations.
- A lack of understanding
Those companies who feel that meeting the legal minimum is enough may be suffering from a lack of understanding of what it truly means to be a working parent.
We know that women, in particular, are dropping out of the workforce due to childcare issues. An annual survey released in November 2022, found that just 9% of the 413 women on FTSE 100 boards were in executive roles. It’s no wonder then that the penalty often felt by mothers isn’t addressed by many organisations.
Bringing more diversity into the C-suites could provide that wider understanding or prompt to actively listen to the needs of working parents.
- A culture of silence
Sadly, society has normalised the belief that when it comes to being a good employee, having child is more of a mark against you then a proof of abilities. Because of this working parents often stay quiet about their struggles or their need for flexible working through fear of losing out on promotion, receiving less pay or not getting hired in the first place.
According to BlackBx, which assists workers with family care responsibilities, 63% of working parents believe that having children had a negative impact on their careers.
Large-scale organisations therefore need to invest the time in evaluating their culture, assessing the progress (or lack of progress) of working parents within their teams and determining how they can nurture psychologically safe environments where employees can air their issues and request flexible working without judgement.
At Tell Jane, we offer awareness workshops in supporting working parents and carers, as well as pregnancy at work training. If your company would benefit from advice on how to implement flexible working initiatives, such as term-time contracts, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.