Childcare and employers

Childcare is high on the political agenda as a crucial issue for parents in determining how many hours they can work or even whether they're able to work at all. What doesn't get so much attention is just how vital childcare is to employers: without a pool of workers who have adequate, reliable childcare, businesses would quite simply not be able to operate.

In spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, childcare remains stuck in public perception as a women's issue. Rather than being a women's issue, childcare is an 'infrastructure' issue as Nicola Sturgeon referred to it at the Women's Employment Summit in 2012. Or as Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address: It's time we stopped treating childcare as a side issue…or as a women's issue and treat it like the national economic priority it is for all of us."

In addition to the wider economic case, there is a strong business case for employers to provide childcare support around improved recruitment and retention, better work-life balance, decreased absenteeism, and greater employee satisfaction.

The first thing that springs to people's minds when thinking about employers and childcare is workplace nurseries. But providing a workplace nursery is simply not an option for most employers: providers suggest that a critical mass of at least 750 employees on one site is necessary before an onsite facility is viable. That doesn't mean that if they're not big enough to provide a workplace nursery, there's nothing employers can do.

Just as each family has different childcare requirements, so there are a wide variety of solutions for employers to support employees with childcare. There is no one size fits all, but there are multiple options and every employer whatever their size can do something.

Options include:

  • Childcare vouchers
  • Flexible working
  • Compressed or annualised working
  • Information provision about local childcare providers
  • Information on paying for childcare
  • Employee networks

Childcare vouchers are the most popular and widely used of all the financial benefits offered to working families by employers. According to the Childcare Vouchers Providers Association, childcare vouchers have helped around 700,000 families across the UK since 2005, and can save the average family approximately £1,800. In order to operate childcare vouchers, employers use salary sacrifice schemes through which employees give up part of their salary in return for vouchers which can be used to pay for childcare. Consequently both employers and employees make savings on tax and National Insurance. To give an example, the Wheatley Group staff survey asked about awareness of childcare vouchers; when they found that male employees were largely unaware that childcare vouchers were available to them, they highlighted that this was available to all staff. Subsequently, childcare vouchers were more widely taken up, absenteeism fell, and staff satisfaction rates increased.

Flexible working is one of the key ways in which employers can support working parents. The UK Government's Fourth Work-Life Balance Employers Survey found that flexible working had a positive impact on motivation and commitment (cited by 68% of employers) and on employee relations (67%). The business case for flexible working is supported by legislation with the right to request flexible working being extended to all employees in 2014.

Often very small adjustments can make a huge difference for parents who need to work around nursery or school drop offs and pick ups. For others, adjustments to shift patterns or extra flexibility around school holidays are what makes the difference. Some employers offer annualised hours which allow parents to balance their work and family life and to cover the difficult school holiday periods. Others offer a compressed week so that parents can work out solutions which enable them to balance work and family commitments.

Providing information about childcare is a very effective and low cost way for employers to support parents with their childcare. Making communication around childcare part of the wider internal communications strategy is one way of doing this. How employers do this can be simple or sophisticated depending on resources. BT Group PLC, for example, has a dedicated "You and Your Family' portal to guide employees through the various childcare and flexible working options open to them. For smaller employers, a list of local child care providers to signpost employees to will be a more feasible option. Internal networks where working parents come together - either face- to-face or online - enable working parents to discuss and find solutions to integrating their work and family life.

No matter the size or shape of the business, there is something that every employer can do around childcare, and in so doing improve staff morale, retention and satisfaction.

More detailed information on these and other options can be found in Working Families' The Employers Guide to Childcare.