How can flexible working help with childcare?

Kate Palmer from HR experts Peninsula outlines how flexible working can help with childcare issues.

Person working from home at their desk with computers


The act of balancing childcare and work is a dance that working parents have been doing for years. But as the price of childcare rises and pay packets stay the same, parents are looking for more ways to help keep their home and work lives in balance.

The average annual nursery bill for a family with a child under two has increased by 44% since 2010, according to the TUC, up from £4,992 to £7,212 in 2021. This means that many parents in full-time work are thousands of pounds out of pocket before they even set foot in the workplace.

Two thirds of families currently pay more for childcare than they do on their rent or mortgage and 43% of working mothers are considering leaving their jobs because of this, according to a Pregnant Then Screwed survey. A Pregnant Then Screwed and Mumsnet study found 40% of working mothers are working fewer hours than they would like because they can’t afford childcare fees, meaning they then must cut back on other essentials.

During the pandemic, many parents were forced to take time off to home school their children, with women taking the lion’s share of the responsibility.

With the summer holidays upon us, nearly two-thirds of working mums will not have enough childcare to see them through to September. This has led many having to use annual leave to ensure that their children are properly looked after during this time.

Another survey shows more than one in 10 working parents have said that they must reduce their hours or take unpaid leave during the summer holidays. With approximately 62 days of school holiday a year and employees getting an average of 25 days leave, it simply doesn’t add up. There are ways that employers can help.

Employer help

After six months of continuous employment all employees are entitled to make a flexible working request. Although there is no formal definition of flexible working, examples can include, working from home, job sharing, flexitime or compressed hours.

Employers are under no obligation to agree to allow you to work flexibly, but they must consider the request reasonably. However, they can only turn down a flexible working request on certain specified grounds relating to business needs. This means that they cannot create a blanket policy stating they won’t allow flexible working in certain roles.

If your request is approved, it’s important to consider the realities of flexible working and whether it is right for you.

Whilst working from home can seem ideal, it doesn’t suit every household. Sometimes it can be difficult for family members to respect or even fully understand that, although you are physically at home, you are working and you aren’t free to do other activities any more than if you were in the office. It can also be difficult to maintain a clear definition between work and home. It can often be easy to slip into working beyond your set hours if you’re not careful.

If you choose to compress your hours or stagger start and finish times you may find that colleagues think it’s acceptable to contact you outside these hours. It can be hard to ignore these messages or calls and suddenly your much needed family time is filled with work.

Not all workplaces have embraced the flexible working culture, but it has been shown that those that do increase employee loyalty and reduce staff turnover.

If you do wish to pursue flexible working, how can you go about it?

A request can only be filed once every 12 months, so it is important to properly plan your approach. If you are currently on maternity, adoption or other parental leave you may want to start planning your return to work now as it’s best to give yourself plenty of time before your return date to make sure that all the arrangements are in place.

It may help to suggest a trial period initially if you either you or your employer are unsure about how the arrangement will work. This can also help demonstrate how a long-term arrangement would work and prove that not only are these changes helpful, but they also show you are able to maintain productivity and get everything done both inside and outside work.

*Kate Palmer is Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula which provides HR and health & safety support for small businesses.

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