Transition to Parenthood study: how do SMEs support working parents?

Over 99% of UK businesses are small and medium enterprises – but much of the research on working parents focuses on large companies.

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Working parents’ experiences at small and medium-sized businesses are being explored in a three-year research project, which hopes to fill an important gap in our understanding of workplaces.

The Transition to Parenthood study, which is currently looking for employers and employees to take part in its research, is analysing issues such as support during pregnancy, parental leave, flexible working, and discrimination. The project team includes researchers from three universities, plus the charities Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute.

When it comes to how employers can support working parents, much of the existing research is focused on very large companies. And yet, in the UK, over 99% of businesses are classed as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with fewer than 250 employees. SMEs account for almost two-thirds of employment in the private sector, according to 2022 government data.

“Becoming a parent is a major life-event…But very often this excitement is soon overshadowed by worries about: ‘Oh gosh, how am I going to do this? How am I going to combine my new parent role with my work responsibilities?’ ” says Bianca Stumbitz, a senior research fellow at Middlesex University’s Business School who is leading the project.

“And, at the same time…smaller employers are often very overwhelmed with the additional task of supporting pregnant staff and new parents, while continuing to run their business on a day-to-day basis.”

The knowledge gap around SMEs often leads to “best practice” recommendations that simply don’t work for them – these businesses may not have the money to offer long stretches of paid parental leave, nor the HR teams to oversee family-friendly policies.

Even the way in which guidance is presented can be tough for SME leaders, who are less likely to have specialist staff to wade through dense documents. “There’s no point in having a guidance document that’s 120 pages long…no small employer will [have] the time,” says Stumbitz.

Creating bite-size explainers

The Transition to Parenthood study, which runs until autumn 2025, will conduct interviews, focus groups and surveys with SME employers and employees. Stumbitz hopes to include a diverse range of working parents, such as those on low-incomes who often struggle to have time to participate in such projects.

The project will then use its findings to produce concise videos and factsheets that quickly explain some of the key issues around working parents, both for bosses and workers. The team also hopes to share the informal ways that SMEs have found to support parents, so that smaller companies can learn from each other. 

“If they’re really keen on supporting loyal staff, then they will find solutions but…it’s informal [and] it’s not translated into formal policies,” Stumbitz says. “And that’s the thing, when you look at the [existing] literature on this, it’s always about policies.”

Stumbitz and her colleagues hope to break a cycle whereby SMEs struggle to find time to take part in research about working practices, and therefore none of the resulting solutions suit them. She says it has been challenging at times to find companies to take part in their study – but that’s precisely why it matters.

“It’s really confirming, particularly on the employer side, what we’re saying – they’re so preoccupied with running their businesses on a day-to-day basis, [so it’s hard] to have the headspace for these things,” she says.

“We really want to address this gap. The key aim is to develop needs-based solutions for SMEs that work for both employers and employees.”

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You can find out more about the Transition to Parenthood study here and you can find out more about taking part in the research here.



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