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A beginner’s guide to supporting parents and caregivers

Sally Hogg, Play in Education, Development and Learning Research Centre at the Department of Education, University of Cambridge (PEDAL)

Being family-friendly is not just about helping staff with the practical logistics of balancing work and childcare arrangements. It is also about helping parents to look after their wellbeing and their families’ needs, to make a positive contribution at work, to find work fulfilling, and to achieve their career goals.

a graphic of two hexagons containing text. One says "Thriving at home and being the parent they want to be". The other says "thriving at work, being productive, satisfied and achieving their potential.

In family-friendly organisations parents feel supported and have meaningful choices. They can take-up support that helps them as parents, and it will not impact on their experiences, performance or progression at work.

Being family-friendly is not just about having a set of policies. It also refers to the wider culture, values and practices in the organisation.

Being an employer that offers a better environment for working parents and carers requires leadership. Leaders need to be clear that they value family-friendly working, and they need to show commitment to embedding family-friendly practices across the organisation.

It can be helpful if people in senior leadership roles take up opportunities like flexible working or parental leave to demonstrate that these are meaningful choices that are compatible with succeeding in the organisation.

Every employer, employee and family are different, and situations are dynamic and change over time. There is no single, off-the-shelf policy or one-size-fits-all approach that will make you family-friendly. Being family-friendly is about adopting a set of values and a mindset. With this mindset, you will find solutions to support parenting in your workplace.

A graphic image of a jigsaw with words. The words are "pay and rewards, Leave, performance management, recruitment, culture, leadership, ways of working, flexible working policies, line management".

To ensure your organisation really works for parents and their families it is important to consider many interrelated aspects of how you work.

  • Finding the right approach for your organisation

    Different organisations will provide support, choice, resources and flexibility in different ways, such as leave entitlement and pay benefits. What you will be able to do for parents in your workplace will depend on your organisation’s size, sector, context and resources.

    In some sectors it is easier to see how work can be done flexibly, whereas others rely more on people doing work in specific places at specific times. Flexible working is now being adopted in sectors that have traditionally found it more challenging because they rely on face-to-face service delivery during specified time periods. For example, there is work underway to increase flexibility within the NHS.

    Family-friendly values might be enacted in different ways: Micro organisations might know staff well and be able to flex to individual needs. Larger organisations might need more policies and monitoring to ensure that principles are being fairly implemented and to understand impact they are having.

    Flexible working is now being adopted in sectors that have traditionally found it more challenging because they rely on face-to-face service delivery during specified time periods. For example, there is work underway to increase flexibility within the NHS.

    All organisations can adapt how they work to be more family-friendly. Professional and sector bodies can also provide advice and examples tailored to the specific opportunities and challenges of their sector.

    The social enterprise, Timewise, works with sectors where flexible working is traditionally more difficult, such as construction, health and education.

  • Getting started

    Understanding how to become family-friendly should done in partnership with your employees. They will understand both what they need as parents, and how their part of the organisation operates.

    If you value wellbeing, inclusion, equality, diversity, performance and productivity, you should find that things you are already doing help you to be a family-friendly employer.

    • Understand the business case – see the Business Taskforce’s report for support
    • Know your legal responsibilities – see our resources below
    • Devise your goals and strategy
    • Involve your colleagues – make this an ongoing dialogue
    • Interrogate your employee life cycle – including applications, recruitment, performance, pay, progression, satisfaction, and retention
    • Ensure you are inclusive and consider all people working for your organisation, including those from minoritised groups and in atypical and/or low paying roles
    • Implement and embed new policies, practices and culture with strong leadership, communications and support to staff and line managers – to ensure the changes become a reality for parents
    • Continually monitor data and feedback to make sure people are benefitting
  • The employee journey to becoming a parent

    People become parents in different ways. However they become a parent, employees are likely to need flexibility and support as they begin the journey to parenthood. For some, this may be required before a child is even conceived. For others, it will begin as they prepare for parenthood and continue when they take leave to welcome children into their family and then return to work.

    New parents may need additional support and flexibility because of the additional physical, mental and practical implications of being pregnant, giving birth, and feeding their baby(ies).

    Parents face two big transitions when they have children. First, when their child is born, they become a parent. Then, when they return to work after parental leave, they become a working parent. These are both points of significant change when they will benefit from your support.

    Support offered to parents during this period can include paid and unpaid leave, time-off for appointments, additional flexibility to cope with practical and physical issues, and support for adapting to the challenges of balancing work and family life.

    Peers and line managers can do a lot to support new parents during these times of transition. Some employers may also be able to offer additional professional advice and support, mentoring and coaching and/or peer support during this period.

    Statutory Entitlements 

    The UK Government provides information on statutory entitlements to different types of time off and pay, such as maternity, paternity and parental leave. Visit their website to find out more.

    Although employment law is a reserved policy area, there are differences in flexible working and benefit across the UK. If you are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland you should check the policies where you live.

    Sources of further information 

  • Help when challenges emerge

    Parents can face day-to-day challenges and emergencies that require flexibility and support from their employers.   Some also face more serious and devasting challenges, such as when children are seriously ill, disabled or die. In such situations employers need to consider not only leave and flexibility in working patterns, but also ongoing support for staff, how to communicate and keep in touch with them, and what it is appropriate to disclose to others in the organisation.  Here are some examples of the support available to help employers in these situations:

  • Flexible working

    Offering flexible working is an important way in which employers can support parents. All employees now have the right to request flexible working from the first day in a new job.

    Flexible working is about offering flexibility in the hours and places people work. Flexibility helps parents balance demands of work and family life, to organise life so they can spend quality time with their children, and to work when childcare is available to them. Flexibility does not just benefit parents; it helps people with different caring responsibilities or their own health and wellbeing needs.

    There are many ways to work flexibly. These include but are not limited to:  Job sharing; remote working; hybrid working; part time; compressed hours;flexitime; annualised hours and term time working.

    Many resources exist to support effective flexible and hybrid working. You may also want to search for guidance and case studies from organisations like yours – many sector-specific resources do exist.

    Flexible working enables employees to adopt different working patterns to meet their and their families’ needs. It can also involve enabling flexibility as-and-when it is needed, for example, when children are ill, have events at school like shows and sports days, or have time off school. Our section on when challenges emerge can help you to deal with more significant challenges such as bereavement and serious illness.

    Successful implementation of flexible working arrangements means finding ways of working that meet the needs of both the staff and the organisation.

    Enabling successful flexible working is not just about allowing employees to work flexibly. Wider practices such as job design, recruitment, working practices, management and rewards must all be considered so that flexibility is a meaningful choice for everyone. It is important that those who work flexibly are treated fairly, included in the organisation, and can thrive and progress in work.

    In some industries or roles, it is impossible to give employees flexibility in individual hours or workplace. In these situations, different policies and systems, such as helping people pick their shifts and know them well in advance, can help people to balance work and family needs.

    Guidance and resources:

    Guidance on flexible working:

    Guidance on flexible and hybrid working:

    • CIPD’s and ACAS both provide guidance on flexible and hybrid working

    Guidance on hybrid working:

  • The importance of line managers

    Line managers are at the heart of an organisation’s family-friendly work culture – they have an enormous impact on employees’ ability to work flexibly and their experience of the workplace as parents.

    It is therefore crucial that line managers receive the training and support they need to implement family-friendly practices.

    Parents might need a range of different types of support and flexibility in different circumstances. In some cases, organisations will need to have policies that set out the specific entitlements that parents have in their organisation, such as maternity leave and pay policies.

    Sometimes it is not helpful or possible to centrally prescribe how line managers should respond to different needs of parents (for example how to deal with emergency childcare issues). It is more useful to have clear values and parameters in which line managers and parents can find the best ways of working for them. It is important to have a culture where employees feel able to talk about their needs, and line managers feel able and empowered to respond.

    In large organisations there may be a need for training, information and support for line managers to ensure that there are fair and consistent approaches to employee requests so that the flexibility and support offered to employees is not dependent on the style or preferences of their line manager.

    To understand if line managers can play their role in creating a family-friendly workplace, you can think about:

    Do line managers have the skills and understanding to respond to parent’s needs?

    • Do they understand employee’s statutory rights and organisational policies?
    • Are they trained in good pratice in line management, diversity and inclusion?

    Do line managers have the opportunity to respond to parents’ needs?

    • Do policies and systems provide managers with the flexibility and capacity to support empolyees?
    • Do they have the ability to feedback if organisational processes, policies and systems need to change to accommodate staff?

    Are line managers motivated and supported to respond to parents’ needs?

    • Do managers understand the case for being family-friendly?
    • Is it in line with organisational values and priorities? Are they supported and encouraged to be family friendly?
  • Childcare support

    Finding affordable, accessible childcare that covers working hours can be a significant challenge for many parents.

    Some employers have the resources to be able to help employees find or pay for childcare, or to provide back-up childcare support.

    All employers can help parents to meet their childcare needs by:

    • Helping parents to find suitable local childcare by sharing information about local childcare provision; supporting parents to share insights with their peers, and allowing parents time off to visit open days and look around different providers in your area.

    Coram Family and childcare has a directory of all childcare providers in England.

    If you have a significant number of staff working non-traditional hours, you may want to try to broker arrangements with local nurseries or childminders so that there is childcare available during their working hours.

    • Helping parents to find financial support with childcare. Many families are entitled to tax-free childcare and/or a subsidised childcare provision.

    Information about childcare provision, subsidies and entitlements can be found on the Government website

    You can also help families to balance work and caring responsibilities by:

    • Providing flexible working so employers can work hours and locations that fit with childcare availability.
    • Ensuring that families know their shift patterns or other working arrangements in plenty of time to enable them to book or arrange childcare.
    • Having leave policies and practices that do not penalise employees if emergency childcare problems emerge.
    • Providing back-up care to help with last minute changes to work arrangements or when for times when formal childcare is not possible.
  • An inclusive approach

    When you are considering how to be family-friendly, it is important to consider all the parents working for your organisation.

    Across your workforce, there may be differences in the flexibilities afforded to different people; their ability to engage in consultation and feedback processes, and the extent people feel able to ask for and access support. In organisations where most people work standard office hours in desk-based jobs, for example, it can be easy to overlook those like cleaning and security staff who work different work patterns and must be in the office.

    There may be people who work for you but are not direct employees. These might include those providing outsourced services like catering and cleaning, and freelance workers. There might be ways in which you can make work more family-friendly even for those you don’t employ directly – for example by requiring companies you commission to pay a living wage, or by allowing them to work during hours when there is more likely to be childcare available.

    There may be unseen reasons why staff can’t equally access family-friendly policies. Offering unpaid leave, for example, is less useful to low paid staff who may not have the financial security to enable them to afford to take it up. Working with your staff to understand their needs and challenges will help you to design family-friendly policies and practices that work for them.

    Additional support for those who need it most

    Some employees might have fewer social, psychological, practical and financial resources to draw on when challenges emerge. Your staff in lower paid, less flexible, and less secure roles, for example, might have fewer childcare choices available to them. It is important to consider how to ensure there is meaningful support, choice and flexibility to all your staff, including those on low pay.

    Helping employees to access the benefits and tax credits to supplement their paid income, can be hugely beneficial to them and their families.

    Citizen’s Advice and Turn To Us offer people help to understand and access their benefit entitlements and additional help to those facing financial insecurity.


    It is important to consider how parenting policies are accessible and inclusive for everyone in your workforce. This includes parents who have protected characteristics or in families where they or their children have additional needs who may need additional support and flexibility.

    Gender and sexuality 

    Try not to make assumptions about the shape, size and make up of families and the gender roles of parents. Where possible, ensure family support and leave policies are accessible to everyone in a parenting or caregiving role, even if they are in a less traditional family.

  • Pay and progression

    Parents, especially women, often face systemic disadvantage which affects their earnings and progression. Family-friendly policies and practices can help parents to be productive in work and to overcome these gender and parenting penalties.

    Well-designed and implemented flexible working policies are key to this. Flexible working arrangements per se do not enable parents to succeed and progress in work, they must need to be accompanied by ways of working which ensure that all employers- whatever their working patterns – are included, able to contribute and recognised for the work they do.

    Organisations should adopt a culture and practices that value people for the work they do. Employees must not be judged or disadvantaged for working different hours or taking time off for parenting responsibilities.

    Alongside meaningful flexible working practices, there are a range of other things that organisations can do to actively support parents to thrive and progress at work. The following resources are helpful in identifying ways to address inequalities in pay and progression.

    • The Government Equalities Office have produced guidance for employers on the evidence-based actions they can take to support women to progress, to help to close the gender pay gap and increase gender equality in the workplace.
    • CIPD and Working Mums offer a range of resources on gender equality in the workplace.
  • Mental health and wellbeing

    Becoming a parent is a time of vulnerability when parents can be susceptible to mental health challenges. Throughout life, parents can experience mental health problems, illness and stress.

    Parents’ mental health and wellbeing matters in its own right. It also matters, because poor wellbeing and illness can make it harder for parents to be the parents they want to be. Mental health challenges can make it harder for parents to meet their children’s needs. Therefore, supporting parents’ mental health and wellbeing has a positive impact for the whole family.

    Many family-friendly policies and practices will support parents’ wellbeing by ensuring that they can balance work and home life. Employees can also provide additional flexibility and support at particular times of vulnerability and transition, such as the arrival of a child and return to work.

    General resources on mental health and wellbeing 

    Many employer support organisations such as ACAS and CIPD have resources on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of all employees at work, which will also support those who are parents.

    If you are specifically interested in supporting employees’ mental health, The Mental Health Foundation has a guide on supporting mental health at work.

    Parent-specific support 

    The PATH project aims to support the prevention and management of mild and moderate perinatal mental health issues (the mental health problems that affect mothers during pregnancy and the first year of life). It has a set of recommendations and advice for employers to support their employees’ emotional wellbeing, from early pregnancy, through to planning their return to work.

    Working Families have case studies of firms who have shown good practice in supporting parents’ mental health and wellbeing

  • Further resources


    the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

    Helpline: 0300 123 1100

    Monday Friday 8-6pm

    ACAS is an independent public body that works with employers and employees improve workplace relationships.

    ACAS’ website contains a wide range of advice, templates, checklists and articles.

    The ACAS helpline is for anyone who needs employment law or workplace advice, including employers and employees.


    CIPD is the professional body for HR and people development. They provide online information and support for organisations, including Fact sheets, guides, reports and think-pieces on relevant issues.

    The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) works with business and education to support the development of managers and leaders. CMI provide practical guidance and advice for managers including on issues relating to flexible and hybrid working, and parents’ rights and support in the workplace.

    Timewise is a social enterprise with a focus on supporting flexible working and a range of relevant information and resources on their website.
    Working Families

    Working families is a national charity for working parents and carers with information and advice for both parents and employers. Their website contains a range of useful toolkits, guides and research and policy guides for employers.
    Working Mums

    Working Mums provide employer advice, research and best practice reports on issues like flexible working, gender equality, recruitment, and diversity issues.