In light of the changes to childcare support and a rapidly ageing workforce, Helen Swire asks how employers can support their staff with care responsibilities at both ends of the spectrum

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The concept of ‘care responsibility’ is expanding: from childcare to caring for elderly relatives, many of today’s workforce will have to face care responsibilities of some sort.

Not only that, but as the average age of first-time parents rises, so too is the overall age of the population, leading to what’s been called the ‘sandwich generation’: those caring for both children and elderly parents.

Although childcare has long been a form of employee benefit, eldercare and government reforms to the childcare system have pushed the issue back into the main employee benefits picture.

What do we want, when do we want it?

“A couple of decades ago, you made a choice – you would either concentrate on your career or on your family,” says Ben Black, managing director of My Family Care. “Now, because flexible working is a reality, more and more people can – and do – combine work and family commitment.”

There are two key words – ‘flexibility’ and ‘culture’. Over a fifth of working mothers have been forced to leave their jobs because a flexible working request was turned down, according to the Workingmums.co.uk’s 2015 annual survey – with 58% saying it is the main factor for their career progression.

For many parents and carers a key facet of an organisation’s culture is that it rates performance over presenteeism: they need to work somewhere that enables them to perform well in their jobs while supporting their work-life balance.

On top of this a bigger cultural change is simmering – namely that it is not just women who are primary carers.

“Organisations are beginning to feel uncomfortable offering maternity but not paternity coaching, because there is a social move towards not dividing care giving and breadwinning down gender lines,” says Geraldine Gallagher, founder of Executive Coaching Consultancy (ECC). “Young men want to have a much more hands-on role with parenting, and organisations need to respond to that.”

Maternity and paternity transitioning, for example coaching on return to work, is becoming a popular new benefit and can be considered to be indicative of a shift in the workplace ethos.

Vouchers and tax-free childcare

It’s all very well, of course, to talk about fostering a culture change. But how are employers to actually achieve this?

“The key area that people look for is support from their employer in working flexibly to meet the childcare, family or structural care issues they have,” says Julian Foster, managing director at Computershare. “This support could be financial, for example through childcare vouchers.”

Childcare vouchers are due to be replaced in 2017 by tax-free childcare (TFC) – however, parents who are already in schemes, or opt in prior to the introduction of TFC, will be able to continue to use them.

The much-debated point is whether parents on the vouchers will be better or worse off than those on TFC.

Foster says: “What employers can – and must – do is to make sure that people understand what they’re entitled to, whichever category they’re in, and make sure they make the best choice for them.”

Flexible working

With free childcare also set to double, the government’s new entitlement means parents will soon get 1,140 hours of free childcare: 30 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year. How this works in practice will still rely on how organisations can adapt through flexible or remote working policies, as well as emergency childcare programmes and shared parental leave.

Every employee now has the right to request flexible working. It’s not unusual, in particular for larger companies with evolved family friendly policies, for workplaces to accommodate particular working patterns.

However, for the smaller companies, there are other solutions. My Family Care’s Black suggests: “Practically speaking, there are two types of maximum stress for employees. First, finding and sorting care at every stage of a child’s development and also in the same way for elderly relatives.

“Secondly, sorting emergency or back-up care, for when things break down. Back-up care schemes are great benefits to have, both for the employer and the staff member.”

Rob Dolbear, managing director of time4care, agrees: “It’s all about providing the employee with those solutions so they can go to their boss and tell them they need to take some time, and their boss being able to accommodate that and understand it.”

Eldercare

Eldercare is slightly different – there may be some employees with direct care responsibilities. However, there is also a large number of ‘hidden’ personnel who don’t have regular responsibilities but who are nonetheless relied upon by elderly relatives at points of need.

“That is where the burden is in terms of time, stress and worry and can really start affecting employees’ mental and physical wellbeing,” says Dolbear.

Businesses are increasingly looking to eldercare organisations such as time4care for help in guiding employees through stressful decision-making processes, for example by presenting them with all their options – legal, practical and personal – and choices, such as nursing homes.

Talk before you walk

“Employers are starting to get the message about the help that they need to provide to attract and retain employees,” says ECC’s Gallagher.

Nevertheless, employers need to ensure that they provide things that people need, will use and are going to be valued, and the best way to do that is to communicate with them – whether through surveys, focus groups or simply conversations.

If a company really understands what their different demographics need, the impact is immense. “The person who finds a way to combine work and family successfully is not going to go anywhere,” says Black. “That person is going to be the most productive, engaged and valued employee.”

Finally, employers need to realise that this is not just a female agenda – everyone needs to be involved in the conversation.

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