Author Profile Picture

James Tugendhat

Bright Horizons Family Solutions

Managing Director

Read more about James Tugendhat

Flexible working: employers must ease the strain for working parents or lose the talent


Despite the introduction of shared parental leave, many organisations still hold outdated attitudes towards working parents and penalise people for having family commitments. If yours is one of them, you could be at risk of losing some of your top talent.

Lack of true flexibility in the modern workplace is pushing working parents to breaking point, with both mothers and fathers feeling frustrated and considering downshifting or leaving their employer.

Part-time work still carries a stigma and can result in loss of promotion opportunities and contribute to the gender pay gap.

These depressing findings come from newly released research undertaken by Bright Horizons in partnership with the charity Working Families, which also shows that part-time work – which continues in practice to be a pattern for far more women than men – has a disproportionately negative effect on career progress.

When organisations value presenteeism, reduced hours workers are at a disadvantage. In many workplaces, being visible and working late are still the best way to get on at work.

It’s hardly a surprise that the part-time pay gap widens to 30% by the time an employee’s child reaches the age of 13.

The message is that flexible working on its own isn’t enough. It needs to be stigma-free – otherwise motherhood will continue to look like a bad career move for many.

Employers also need to provide human-sized jobs that are genuinely flexible.

Paying ‘lip service’ to flexibility

Our research showed that for many workers offered a ‘token’ flexibility, their job role brings an overload of unrealistic work demands that harm their performance at work, as well as damaging their family life.

Balancing work and home isn’t just a challenge for parents, of course.

Increasing numbers of people have care responsibilities for adult loved ones and, when unsupported, many feel forced to give up work as a consequence.

Over 80% of employers say that family-friendly benefits improve retention and over 90% of employees say that it would be an important factor in a job change.

Workers who are burnt out and disengaged are not going to perform well, which is bad for business, bad for the economy and perhaps, most crucially, bad for families.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. The good news is that doing something about this isn’t just fairer and socially progressive. For an employer, it also makes sound business sense.

Caring as an effectiveness strategy

Bright Horizons is privileged to partner with many leading employers who recognise both the risks of losing valuable but under-supported workers and the opportunities for increased engagement that come from tackling this issue.  

We have watched our clients make family-friendly working and support for dependent care an important part of their employee effectiveness strategies and experience significant positive impacts to their recruitment and retention efforts as a result.

Indeed, over 80% of employers say that family-friendly benefits improve retention and over 90% of employees say that it would be an important factor in a job change.

55% of working parents feel flexibility is a great tool for boosting work performance.

One fantastic example is law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP), which has demonstrated that family friendly policies, such as part-time working, are accessible for all.

Chris Bryant, London Partner at BCLP, took shared parental leave following the birth of his daughter and now works part-time to provide childcare.

Chris was named as one of the 2019 Timewise Power 50 (an award that celebrates people and organisations who excel at working flexibly), surely making him a role model for fathers across the country.

When I hear success stories like his, it makes me want to hear more of them.

Fathers want flexibility too

Our research indicates that there are still workplace cultures with a belief in the ‘men work, women care’ stereotype.

Equally, the data shows that many new fathers feel very differently. They would like to share more of the childcare responsibilities, but fear that their employer might view them negatively if they did so.

In fact, 36% of families have lied or bent the truth about family-related responsibilities that impact work, and 34% have faked being sick to fulfil family obligations.

I strongly encourage employers to improve their internal communications to make clear that asking for shared parental leave is encouraged.

Shared parental leave allows for working mothers to receive more support at home and can foster a positive family culture, with fathers being more present in their child’s early weeks of life.

The evidence is that this doesn’t reduce productivity – it increases it.

According to the report, 55% of working parents feel flexibility is a great tool for boosting work performance.

A ‘human sized’ approach

Surely it is common sense to suppose that normalising and encouraging men to take shared parental leave makes it easier in turn for women to re-enter the workforce after the birth of a child.  

If care is viewed correctly, as a shared concern, for which shared parental leave is an enabler, then organisations will be better able to retain and appropriately reward the talented mothers (and fathers) in their workforce.

More genuinely flexible and human-sized jobs, family-friendly workplaces, and meaningful support for both work and family will deliver benefits for businesses and workers alike. I hope to continue to see progress in this important area.  

Interested in this topic? Read Shared parental leave: why businesses need to do more to make it work.

Author Profile Picture
James Tugendhat

Managing Director

Read more from James Tugendhat
Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to HRZone's newsletter