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How businesses can support parents with the childcare challenge 

Ari Last, Bubble Childcare

When you think about working parents, often the first thing that comes to mind is the challenge of being able to afford the early education and childcare that parents so often need to be able to work. Almost a fifth of women with dependent children under five would prefer to increase their working hours given access to suitable childcare and this statistic informs a part of the estimated £45.5billion worth of added value to the economy presented in The Business Taskforce Case for Change report.

According to data from the OECD, the U.K. has some of the highest childcare costs in the world. For many parents, this means calculating if they can afford to work. For example, a 2023 survey of a nationally representative sample of parents in England found that almost half have used their savings or gone into debt in order to pay for childcare. Similar research has found that for as many as 1 in 5 parents, childcare costs are more than half their household income.

Successive Governments have introduced schemes to help parents cover the cost of childcare. This had included free hours, childcare vouchers (a scheme which is now closed to new applicants) and tax-free childcare. While employers played a role in some of these schemes in the past, today there are fewer formal options for businesses to support parents with accessing childcare so that they can balance their caring responsibilities with work.

Whilst employers may feel they have a limited role in helping parents address this critical financial challenge, there are still things they can do.

Be aware. Parents view early education and childcare as a necessity that allows them to work and provide for their children, rather than a luxury that allows them to further their careers. It is also more than simply ‘childcare‘; quality matters to parents and they want to go to work knowing their child is safe, healthy, happy, engaged and supported to learn. It can cause stress to parents if they are struggling to find a place for their child in a setting that feels supportive and appropriate for them.

Be understanding. Simply showing understanding of the childcare challenge many parents face, and acknowledging the additional stress it can cause, can go a long way. Don’t be afraid to talk about childcare as an important part of what enables your colleagues to do their jobs. Some employers demonstrate this understanding by offering time off on important dates such as a child’s first day of school.

Be flexible. Some childcare costs can be mitigated by parents being able to work flexible hours or from home for part of their hours. All employees have the right to make a flexible working request, however parents hesitate to approach their employer for fear of being viewed as difficult or demanding. Initiating a conversation about flexible working options with people going on/returning from parental leave, or when a new employee who has caring responsibilities joins the organisation, can help remove the fear of stigma. It is also helpful to regularly review how parents are managing their responsibilities in and out of work and offering to review working arrangements.

Be clear about leave options. Parents should be made aware that they have the right to unpaid time off work when they need to look after their child(ren). Parents might need to use parental leave to look after a sick child (time off for dependents) or during school holidays (planned unpaid parental leave). For some parents, taking unpaid leave may be more affordable than paying for additional childcare, e.g. during school holidays. Again, proactively broaching the subject with employees can help to reduce the stigma attached to taking leave.

Offer financial support. Many nurseries and childminders require a deposit to secure a child’s place in the setting. This is often as much as a whole month’s deposit. For parents who may be managing on a lower that usual income during maternity/paternity leave, such a large deposit can be a huge financial burden. For some, it could be the reason they eventually decide not to return to work. Employers can provide financial support through offering a forward on a salary or setting up a childcare deposit loan scheme (CDLS). Similar to a season ticket or cycle to work scheme, a CDLS is an interest free loan that is paid back in equal instalments from the borrower’s salary. The Mayor of London announced such a scheme in 2017 accompanied by a toolkit that other employers can use if they set up their own scheme.

Offer on-site childcare. For large employers, there is the option to offer childcare on or very near the company premises. There are different models, with some companies setting up a nursery next to their offices that parents can use as their primary childcare provider or for back up childcare if their usual provision falls through. Some companies use a salary sacrifice scheme to make this resource more affordable, where others use their on-site provision to offer all employees a certain number of days emergency childcare each year.

Offer back-up childcare. It’s not just the affordability and accessibility of childcare which is a challenge, the reliability of care can also be a source of stress for parents. Some companies acknowledge this by subsidising flexible in-home care to use when other childcare arrangements fall though or when their child can’t leave the home.

It is in businesses’ interest to address the childcare challenge that many of their employees are facing. Childcare is part of business infrastructure and directly impacts productivity, wellbeing and retention, as well as impacting the early educational experiences for the next generation. There is a real opportunity for businesses of all sizes to have a positive impact by acknowledging the important role of childcare in their employee’s lives and considering any support they can provide.