The balancing act

Workers with children are struggling to balance these two aspects of their lives, so how can HR keep them engaged?

Words by Kieran Howells | Design by Theo Griffin


For professionals with family commitments balancing both areas of life can be strenuous. Caring for a child means being on call 24 hours-a-day. If an individual feels their employer doesn’t support them in this lifelong endeavour, it can strain the professional relationship, potentially leading to disengagement at work – or a dropping out of professional life altogether. As such, the onus is on businesses to ensure that working parents are able to balance their wishes for a career alongside the demands of childcare, with the need to facilitate greater parental engagement landing at HR’s door.

Is parental engagement on the agenda?
Encouraging parents with young children back into the jobs market has reportedly remained a priority for successive governments over the past two decades, with the latest initiative offered to eligible working families being up to 30 hours of free weekly childcare. Whether it's connected, or not, numbers of parents in work is on the rise too. Office for National Statics (ONS) figures show that 4.9million mothers with dependent children were in work in 2017, up from 3.7million in 1996 with overall employment also rising during the same time period. That said, the same ONS stats show that women with three or four-year-old children were least likely to work full-time, and the most likely to work part-time.


Top tips for dealing with parent workers:

Be aware of your requests
Parents are caught between the demands of family and the demands of their job. Putting a worker in a situation in which they have to make such a decision between the two is unethical.

Be flexible where possible
Children are inevitably going to be ill or need care within work hours. This should be anticipated and built into the company’s HR policies. The more understanding you are, the greater parent workers will engage.

Offer the right support
Not all companies can offer complimentary childcare or unlimited maternity/paternity leave. But all companies can ensure that parent workers – especially new parents – receive support and reassurance that parenthood is expected to impact their work life. Even acknowledging this can go a long way to reassuring parents.

Understand that every family looks different
The nuclear family is no longer the mainstream; all families are different and have different requirements.

What can HR do?
Helen Giles MBE, Executive Director of People and Governance at St Mungo’s, the homeless charity, says that the key is to allow professionals to alter their workdays depending on their needs. She says: “The best way to engage workers with children is to offer flexi-time. It’s also one of the best ways to reduce any gender pay gap as it enables women with children to take senior roles on a full-time or almost full-time basis. Unsurprisingly, this pips other benefits in the popularity stakes, since what most people really value is some control over their own time and the ability to fit work in with other commitments and interests. Flexi-time is great for parents, and great for everyone else too.”

Giles hits on a key point: the enablement of, specifically, women with children at work. Whilst firms will benefit from engaging all parents, women are more likely to have their career impacted by raising children. ONS stats from 2018 found that whilst more than nine in 10 fathers worked for 30 or more hours per week in their main job, just half of all mothers did the same. For context, this number rises to 69.7% of all women without children.

What most people really value is some control over their own time and the ability to fit work in with other commitments and interests


Understanding diversity in family care
Whilst offering flexible working can raise the number of parents engaging in work, it's essential that HR recognises that parent employees will likely come from different family structures. This means not making assumptions about traditional models – such as the nuclear family. Therefore, altering policies to ensure that you’re not alienating professionals who don’t fit into traditional conceptions of family is essential. Karen Brookes, HR Director and Board member at Sir Robert McAlpine, the construction firm behind such builds as London’s Olympic Stadium, explains that her company is conscious that true engagement comes from creating mindful policies. She says: “We’ve introduced increased maternity pay in which people get six months full compensation. Equally, we’ve made that a blind policy. If that’s a father wanting to take six months off, or if you have an LGBTQ couple then it shouldn’t matter.

“We’ve also introduced carers leave, recognising that often employees are sandwiched between caring for both children and elderly family members. We offer two weeks of paid leave and two of unpaid outside of force majeure to ensure that people are able to deal with their lives however they need to. We’re trying not just to support financially, but also support emotionally.”

If a father wants to take six months off, or if you have an LGBTQ couple, then it shouldn’t matter

The bigger picture
However, Kim Healey, People Director at Everton Football Club, has a different view of parent engagement in the workplace. She states that worrying statistics about parent workers evidence that firms need to build greater awareness around other such family matters too. “I think it is not just about engaging parent workers – it is about showing an awareness that people may have a range of different responsibilities within their family,” she says. “Perhaps they have caring responsibilities for a partner or spouse (as I do) or an elderly parent, as well as having children themselves.”

Healey says that parental measures are part of a greater issue around work-life balance, which she says is massively underrepresented, and explains how her policies aim to combat the issue: “At Everton, we aim to promote a culture that appreciates work-life balance. We have in place empowered working – allowing our staff, in agreement with their manager, to vary their start and finish times either side of core hours. We also make our feedback processes as open and easy as possible,” she adds.

Often, employees are sandwiched between caring for both children and elderly family members


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