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Gina Jones



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Summertime madness: How HR can ease the burden for working parents in the holidays

How HR can support working parents in the school holidays.

HR professionals are attuned to issues around employee wellbeing, so you’ve probably noticed that a lot of the working parents in your organisation have been looking a bit stressed lately. That’s because the school summer holidays are now upon us and, let’s face it, today’s workplace culture just isn’t set up to deal with that.

Most workers are entitled to 28 days paid annual leave, including the eight UK bank holidays, but the number of days per year that children are off school is around 55 days per year (not including inset days or sick days, of which there are loads when they are small). Who decided that?! (This guy, apparently).

As a parent who is also attempting to hang onto my career, this seems crazy. Before I’ve even walked through the door, you’ve set me up to fail – but ok, let’s move on.

The summer holidays are a huge threat to the financial wellbeing of working parents – not to mention their mental health – and yes, it is your problem. It’s everyone’s problem. Here, I’ll explain why, and what employers can do about it.

The cultural impact of costly childcare

Statistics from the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed show that half of parents were unable to meet their summer childcare needs last year. Almost a third (32%) say the cost of summer childcare was either the same or more than they earn.

As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, more than a third of parents (35%) say they’re forced to reduce spending on essentials like food, heat, fuel and clothing due to the cost of summer childcare and almost one in five (18%) will get into debt.

Nine in ten councils are concerned nursery closures this year will be significant and undermine sufficiency.

The picture is even bleaker for Black African Caribbean and Black British parents, with 10% saying they will have to skip meals to pay for formal summer childcare (compared to 3.6% net).

HR professionals are waxing lyrical all year about DEI – we’re all in this together, let’s steer our ship towards a more inclusive culture! 

In the summer, however, working parents are cast adrift in a rubber dinghy that has a hole in it, with nothing but a banana and some rice crackers to paddle with. Bon voyage! Forgive us for feeling a little resentful.

Lack of availability

The problem isn’t just the cost of childcare; accessibility is also an issue.

The government’s childcare costs reforms for young children will expand ‘free’ nursery places to younger children in a phased rollout from September 2024. That sounds great, right? It would be, if there were nurseries available.

Analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) suggests nearly nine in ten councils are concerned nursery closures this year will be significant and undermine sufficiency. In addition, the number of childcare providers registered with Ofsted has decreased by 4,800 in the past year.

Also, while many nurseries offer childcare throughout the year, others are only open during school term time – so even if you magically find one, you’re still back at square one when summer rolls around.

Double trouble

The issue is compounded if you have more than one child.

Fiona, 39, from London, works in planning and is a mum of two. She’s probably the most organised person I know. This woman plans all her birthday gifts for the year on 1 January. If anyone can find childcare provision, it’s her – or so I thought.

Companies are trying – and failing – to recruit skilled staff and yet there’s a huge swathe of people (mainly women) unable to work.

“Finding a place that will take both my kids (aged seven and five) together for the summer has been impossible,” she says. “We’re having to juggle sending them to two different clubs on different weeks, then filling in gaps ourselves between work, or calling on family for the rest. Still, it’s better than last year. A lot of clubs don’t accept them until age five, so the options were even more limited then”.

Workers with two children don’t just have the issue of finding twice as much childcare, they’re also footing double the bills. For some, it means working isn’t financially viable at all.

Locked out

UK businesses are facing significant skills and labour shortages, with 82% experiencing recruitment difficulties last year, and 78% said they’ve seen reduced productivity as a result.

Companies are trying – and failing – to recruit skilled staff and yet there’s a huge swathe of people (mainly women) unable to work because working hours and a lack of childcare provision won’t allow it.

Claire, 39, from Kent, is a stay-at-home mum to two boys, aged six and three. She says: “I was a programme manager but I gave up my job. I feel pressure to return to work, but the cost of childcare means that a lot of my income would be completely wiped out. So now I’m in this very peculiar situation of having all these skills but being unable to work – it’s frustrating,” she added.

So employers can’t find great staff and yet there are all these amazing Claires (32,000 women left the workforce last year) unable to work? They’re sitting on skills you need, but they can’t work for you because…you only want people who can work Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm? Make it make sense!

The daddy of all issues

It’s not just mums who bear the brunt of this. Working dads are also afflicted, explains Ian Dinwiddy, coach, mentor and founder of Inspiring Dads.

“I’d urge all employers and managers to pause and consider what assumptions they are making about who might want or need a degree of childcare-related flexibility. It’s way too easy to equate childcare solely with mothers, and that’s a problem for all parents,” he argues.

There are many ways employers can support working parents – it starts with thinking differently about your hiring process.

By assuming the problem rests with mums, it reduces the capacity for dads to take on their share of the responsibility.

To alleviate the problem, employers should be reaching out directly to working dads, he adds: “Ask them what changes they need to make to their schedule. Too many dads will fear the consequences of asking, so don’t make them ask; start that conversation and lift a massive weight off the shoulders of working dads everywhere”.

How employers can help

There are many ways employers can support working parents – it starts with thinking differently about your hiring process.

Are there roles that could be more flexible? Could you offer term-time working or annualised hours? If the answer is yes, you could potentially open up your candidate pool to a whole new market of skilled professionals.

Flexible and remote working should also be in the mix, but this you already know. Childcare provision and family-friendly employee benefits like discounts and vouchers can also help.

Before all of this, however, should be your workplace culture. None of the suggestions above will mean anything unless your workplace has a truly open and inclusive culture in the first place.

If parents and non-parents in your workforce are locked into an ‘us and them’ mentality, then you could end up in a situation where non-parents feel resentful about benefits offered to working parents, and working parents feel embarrassed/unable to take up the slack they need for fear of negative judgments from colleagues.

Everyone needs to feel supported and in turn, this will enable them to support each other.

If you enjoyed this article, read: Why ‘fake flexibility’ just won’t cut it for working mums.

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Gina Jones


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