How can employers support working carers through the school holidays?

Need to know:

  • Employees are set to struggle with juggling work and childcare as the annual school summer holidays approach.
  • Employers can help by offering flexible work arrangements, discounted leisure and dining vouchers, and signposting staff to government support.
  • Employers that can be seen to help will benefit from more productive and motivated staff.

The start of long summer holidays may spell freedom for schoolchildren but this also marks the start of a tricky period for parents trying tojuggle work and childcare responsibilities. Annual leave will form part of a patchy solution, but employers wanting to keep staff productive and engaged can also help them cope.

Flexible-working arrangements are an obvious place to start. Helen Payne, principal at Aon, says: “Consider allowing summer working hours, maybe with a condensed four-day week or early finish on a Friday. This would appeal to all employees as well as support working parents. Most of our clients allow the buying of holiday, which can help working parents, with some employers allowing employees to buy 10 days or more a year.”

Underused support

Employees are also entitled to up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave per child, in addition to their holiday entitlement, to be taken before their child’s 18th birthday, adds Luke Bowery, a partner at law firm Burges Salmon. “There are restrictions on how much leave can be taken in any one year, albeit the employer can agree otherwise,” he explains. “There is no obligation on the employer to pay the employee while they take this leave so take-up is generally low, but it may be worth suggesting this to an employee if they have no other options.”

For those that do secure time off with children, the use of leisure and dining vouchers can help to keep costs down at a time when prices are still soaring. Matt Russell, CEO of employee benefits platform Zest, says: “These are popular benefits but are currently underused, often due to a lack of simplicity in actually claiming the discount or a lack of engagement with the platform provider.”

Zest’s own data shows that only 66 out of its 579 clients have a benefit that covers retail vouchers and discounts. Where employers do offer this, it is worth targeting parents with relevant communications in the build-up to holidays to remind them what is available, he adds.

Promote benefits

Sometimes such discounts may already be part of existing products. Jane Hulme, HR director at Unum UK, says: “It’s worth taking the time to understand what savings your employee assistance programme can offer and promoting these to staff. Many run a ‘discount marketplace’ that parents can access deals for cinemas and restaurants, which help with the cost of entertaining children during the school holidays.”

Government-supported childcare schemes can also help. Jim Moore, employee relations partner at HR consultancy Hamilton Nash, says: “Employer-supported childcare allowed employers to offer subsidised childcare or vouchers where up to £55 per week was tax-free, but the government closed this scheme to new entrants in late 2018. It’s been replaced by tax-free childcare, which allows working parents to get an extra 20% tax free towards childcare costs, up to a maximum of £2,000 a year per child. However, this is a scheme run by the government, not employers.”

Melanie Morton, managing associate at national law firm Freeths, adds: “Many parents still involved in the childcare vouchers scheme may not appreciate that these vouchers can be used to pay for holiday clubs and sports clubs, provided they are run by an accredited and regulated provider. Tax-free childcare can also be used to achieve the same savings. This can help alleviate some of the financial burden on parents and carers during school holidays.”

Inhouse childcare

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One other option could be for employers to run their own childcare facilities, such as workplace nurseries, adds Moore. “These offer subsidised places for employees’ children, but this would be a taxable benefit and only practical for the largest employers to consider,” he explains.

Any initiative that can provide practical solutions to the issues working parents will face over the upcoming, and future, holiday periods are likely to be well received by employees. “Parents often put the wellbeing of their children ahead of their own needs, so any support that employers provide will have a strong emotional impact, resulting in increased motivation and productivity of the workforce,” concludes Payne.