True Flexible Working Requires 24/7 Childcare
12 August 2019

Flexible working – childcare – working parents

Recently, a client, a small retail employer, has been asking advice about how to progress a situation with a long-term employee, Sammi, who had a baby about two years ago and is now struggling to cope. Sammi had a pre-existing mental impairment anyway, made by the stress of juggling work, a baby and fatigue etc. She can’t do her job. She wants to, but she can’t. She cries frequently, can’t make decisions, becomes hyper, then crashes. She has got into the habit of taking work home (though she’s not asked or required to do so) and is now having personal problems with her partner. She’s at a low ebb financially because she has to put her child into a local nursery which is phenomenally expensive in order to work. It’s a very unhappy situation for them all – employee, employer, baby and partner because they’re all being short changed.

Poor Sammi was at her wits end. We discussed several options and she has gone for managed exit. It’s probably the right decision for her, but we will be sad to see her go.

In the UK we now have a round-the-clock service lifestyle and expectation. The days when facilities and services closed at 6pm in the week and nothing was open on a Sunday or bank holiday are long gone. Today’s offerings are 24/7 in many cases. Whether we are any happier for our ability to shop/ drink/ view films/ eat etc round the clock is another matter, but the fact remains that the hours during which businesses have to operate has extended.

So, we want an “on all the time” lifestyle, but employees also want the right to have work-life balance. They want more time off and those having babies want the right to come back to work. This is all good stuff in theory.

The truth is it’s the most appalling mess. Many people work flexible shifts. If a parent uses external childcare provision it simply doesn’t tie in with shift work.

All too frequently I have been involved in the sort of problems Sammi is facing (or something like it) repeatedly. Watching haggard parents (it does still seem to be predominantly mothers) dash from work to childcare, childcare to home and then do the whole thing again. Many of them seem to be permanently exhausted, stressed, unhappy and financially broke.

The costs of professional childcare are enormous, so often new parents rely on their parents or grandparents and that all goes to hell in a handcart when the carer goes on holiday, becomes unwell or just can’t/ won’t take care of the child.

Many of the problems have their origin in the poorly thought through flexible working arrangements. The rights provided to working parents are inadequate and they cost too much, even with tax allowances like childcare vouchers. Why are we allowing such an essential business service as childcare to be run in a way that costs parents and businesses so much in financial and efficiency terms?

The current flexible working arrangements don’t work that well for parents. Neither do they work well for employers. They can cause employers huge difficulties and often make unfair demands on other employees, especially those who work shifts ad end up doing all the weekends, lates, bank holidays. It causes enormous resentment, especially if parents flounce about telling all and sundry that it’s their “human right” to work Monday-Friday 8am-4pm (it’s not diplomatic bearing in mind that for most people having a child is a choice).

In its current state the term “flexible working” is a complete misnomer. Good childcare is far too hard to come by in the UK. It’s far too costly and it’s not 24/7. It needs a proper overhaul to meet the needs of all parties – the consumer of services, the employer of people and the employee. It’s time that we had free 24/7 childcare so that working parents can work the hours required of them. This care should be provided by the state (it is in other countries) and let’s bite the bullet it may mean a tax increase. It cannot be placed on the shoulders of employers yet again. Many small businesses can’t afford to pay for more employee benefits. This is a national issue; it needs a holistic approach with consultation which includes small businesses (have you noticed that the government only ever seem to consult with the largest businesses?) and it’s one we should be raising with our MPs. 

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2023 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.