Working Families and workplace solutions expert Bright Horizons track key issues for working parents in our annual Modern Families Index. In 2016, we highlighted how millennial parents are feeling at work (prone to burn out and desperate for a better work-life balance); and in 2017 we warned the UK risks a ‘fatherhood penalty’, with fathers (particularly young fathers) wanting to take a much more active part in childcare – and workplaces failing to adapt and support their aspirations.
To enable fathers to take a greater role looking after their children – and kick start a change in culture in the workplace that supports them to do so – Working Families is calling for a paid period of independent leave that makes time away from work to spend with new children a realistic option for more fathers.
Of course, it isn’t just fathers that are affected by this outdated culture; we found that more than 1 in 5 parents, young and older, would not feel confident discussing family-related issues with their employer. 1 in 12 could never tell their employer they have childcare problems, for fear of being viewed negatively.
Workplace culture is stuck in the past; employers are being needlessly rigid about the way they design and advertise vacancies – leaving too many parents that want to work left with just one choice: taking on low-paid, insecure work – or not working at all. This rigidity is little more than self-harm on the part of employers, who are depriving themselves of talented and committed employees.
To create the workplace culture needed for parents of all ages to thrive at home and at work, we must move to a situation where all UK jobs are designed and advertised flexibly, by default. Working Families, in partnership with the government, the TUC, CBI and the FSB, created the Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline and logo. Matthew Taylor’s review of modern employment practice has called on the government to champion it; of course, I completely agree.
More decent, part-time and flexible jobs are the change that needs to happen to ensure other initiatives work. Does the government think Universal Credit will work effectively for parents if there are no decent quality part-time and flexible jobs? How will 30 free childcare hours work if the decent jobs parents need are advertised only at 35 hours per week? And how will fathers returning from a period of paid leave continue to share care if the flexibility they need to do so isn’t available? If we expect any of these to succeed, we have first to reform our outdated labour market.
The current situation must change – in particular to support young parents who have even more of an appetite to share care and who value flexibility highly. Too many young parents are trapped in insecure work with uncertainty about their hours, making planning childcare very difficult. The government should level the playing field on parental rights between those classified as ‘workers’, ‘employees’ and ‘self-employed’ without delay.
This would ensure that working parents obliged to take low-paid, insecure work is not denied the family-friendly rights which employees are entitled to. For example, all agency workers (not just those who have been there 12 weeks) should have a right to paid time off for antenatal appointments; all workers (not just employees with a year’s service) should be able to ask for unpaid parental leave; and self-employed fathers should be able to access paternity pay.
What struck me most strongly on reading the TUC’s research is the individualization of the issue. As they rightly point out, and despite the progress that has undoubtedly been made, many employers still see balancing work and family responsibilities as the employee’s problem. Our 2017 Modern Families Index shows that employees tend to agree – they see the responsibility as primarily theirs, rather than their employer’s or the government’s.
Of course, parents need to be proactive on their own behalf; but this is undoubtedly more difficult for an individual, on their own, and especially if they face a hostile response from their employer, and if their employer isn’t being encouraged to support them by the government. We – parents, employers and the government – must understand we all have a part to play in helping families achieve the balance that works for them; and respond. After all, it’s all of us who will benefit.