Sue Macmillan, Mumsnet, discusses the biggest issues facing working parents today


What is the biggest issue that working parents are facing?

One of the biggest issues that parenting website Mumsnet’s users cite repeatedly is flexible working. This can mean different things to different people. It can mean letting people change the shape of their working week: working three or four long days rather than five, for instance, or working some ‘short’ days and some ‘long’ days to fit in with school runs, partners’ availability and so on.

Flexible working can also be an attitude: understanding that having children means that unexpected things come up – illness, school events, nursery or school closures – and accepting this might mean that staff need to work from home, or absent themselves for a short time. It’s about trusting your staff: employers and staff both want the business to thrive, and for work to be done well and on time. So long as these things are happening, in most businesses a lot of other things are negotiable.

There’s lots of evidence to show that businesses perform better when they give employees flexibility. Staff appreciate this sort of mindset, and you’ll get more from them in the long run because they value the company for allowing them to balance their work and family.

Another issue that comes up a lot – among users of Mumsnet and of our sister site Gransnet – is ‘sandwich’ caring: people who have care responsibilities for older parents or other relatives as well as children. This is a problem that particularly affects older women, and many highly skilled, valuable female employees drop out of the workforce at this stage of their lives because inflexible work patterns make things impossible for them.

Are there enough employers understanding this or is it still the few rather than the many?

We are starting to see a change. The number of people who are saying their employer is not at all family friendly, or not flexible, has started to drop.

But the biggest group of people are those who say their employers are somewhat flexible but there’s still a way to go to change their understanding. So while change is happening, there’s still room for improvement. That’s why Mumsnet launched our Family Friendly Programme five years ago.

Have the changes the government made to parental leave, childcare funding and flexible working helped employers, or do they still need help in implementing those changes successfully?

It’s definitely the latter: we welcome the changes, and it’s great that childcare is now top of the agenda. It can only be a good thing that the government is talking about all these issues and trying to make constructive changes. The 30 hours a week of free childcare is really important; childcare costs are one of the biggest issues for working parents, and can be a real barrier to getting back to work.

However, to be really successful and to make a genuine difference to parents, the new childcare offer will need to be backed up by sufficient planning when it comes to places and funding. Similarly, it’s great that parental leave rights are being extended to dads more fully, but our users tell us that unless paternity leave is paid at a good rate, most families won’t be able to afford for fathers to take much time off.

Where should employers start when they’re examining how to support their working parents?

It starts with an understanding of your workforce and accepting that working constructively with staff who have caring responsibilities isn’t just helpful for employees, but essential for the business as well. It doesn’t make sense to sink resources into training employees and then make it difficult for them to come back into the workplace because you’re not offering flexible working.

Fundamentally, it’s about attitudes: as an employer, do you see parents on your staff as potential problems? Or do you embrace the fact that your people have lives outside work, and do you recognise that being happy in their personal lives will make them better, more productive and more loyal members of staff?

There shouldn’t be a culture where people have to pretend they don’t have children. Supporting working parents means you’ll get a commitment from employees that you wouldn’t otherwise get. A flexible, understanding attitude will be rewarded many times over by loyalty and flexibility from employees.