Should the UK Offer 24/7 Childcare for Working Parents?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been advising a small employer how to progress a situation with a long-term employee, Sonny, who had a baby about three years ago and is struggling badly. Sonny had a pre-existing mental impairment anyway, made worse I suppose by the stress of juggling a baby, fatigue, work etc. She can’t do her job. She wants to, but she can’t. She weeps all the time, can’t make decisions, becomes hyper, crashes. She also takes work home (she’s not asked or required to do so incidentally, it’s her choice) and is now having personal problems with her partner. She’s feeling the pinch financially because she has to put her child into a local nursery which is eye wateringly expensive in order to work. It’s a dreadful situation for them all – employee, employer, baby and partner because they’re all being short changed.

Working parents

Poor Sonny was on her knees. We discussed a number of 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.

The UK has a 24/7 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.

At the same time employees 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.

In reality 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.

I see situations like Sonny’s or something like it over and over again. 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.

Often (because of the enormous costs of professional childcare) 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.

So many of the problems that I deal with 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?

At the same time, the current flexible working arrangements 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 “right” to work Monday-Friday 8am-4pm (it’s not diplomatic bearing in mind that for most people having a child is a choice).

Flexible working in its current state 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 © 2019 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.