Buyer’s guide to emergency childcare (September 2009)

It’s worth having services in place to head off short-notice staff absence because of childcare problems, says Nicola Sullivan

In their efforts to reduce staff absence or the likelihood of leave being taken at short notice, employers can add emergency childcare services to their package of family-friendly benefits. This perk is used if employees’ normal childcare arrangements break down without warning, for example if a childminder or nanny becomes ill, or the child is too sick to attend nursery or school.

Lynne Keeble, product manager at Accor Services, says: “A breakdown in childcare can potentially mean an employee is not able to come into work for the day. Offering emergency childcare is one benefit offered by their work that makes it possible that they can.”

Database of contact details

In its simplest form, an emergency childcare service gives staff access to a database of contact details of nurseries, often accessed through an employee assistance programme (EAP). Some employers offer online systems, where alternative arrangements can be booked within two hours. Some websites may have a drop-down list of providers, highlighting those that have spaces available.

Alternatively, employees that are members of an existing childcare voucher scheme may have access to a free telephone helpline, which puts them in touch with a call centre that can offer advice and help them search for alternative childcare providers.

Instant access to pre-paid nursery places

Employers can also offer instant access to pre-paid nursery places at an onsite facility or a nursery near to where the employee works. By reserving emergency places in advance, employers can head off problems with last-minute leave and unauthorised sickness absence.

Another option is to give a parent access to a nanny or registered childminder who can look after the child at their home. This kind of arrangement is particularly useful if the child is ill and cannot attend nursery or school. Another advantage of employing a nanny is that it gives the employee greater flexibility, especially if they need to stay late at work.

Budget considerations

But when budgets are tight, employers will have to consider carefully how much they want to contribute to these services, which can be costly. For example, a nanny can cost as much as £17 an hour, and nurseries typically cost between £50 and £60 a day. Meanwhile, childminders start at about £6 an hour.

Some employers allocate a certain amount of money to each parent to spend on emergency childcare services. This is to encourage them to consider less expensive care arrangements and not just opt for a nanny, which is the most expensive alternative. Venetia Wickham, operations director at My Family Care, says: “If an employer has got a £3,000-a-day lawyer on billable hours, then it might be worth shelling out £150 to get a nanny.”

Communicate to male and female staff

Effective communication is essential to ensure emergency childcare benefits are fully utilised by staff. To achieve this, employers should ensure they promote the perk in a way that appeals to both male and female parents. In organisations that have no subsidised emergency childcare arrangements, staff should be reminded of the tax efficiency of childcare vouchers. It is also worth informing staff whether the childcare voucher provider can help them source emergency childcare places.

Providers of emergency childcare also encourage employers to ensure working parents establish their preferred method of care before any emergency arises. Ideally, parents should visit the nursery, or meet the minder or nanny in advance, so they can develop trust in the service. That way, the employee may be more likely to use the services offered rather than taking time off work.

Giving parents choice

“It is absolutely key for parents to be prepared [for an emergency situation],” says Wickham. “It is about giving parents choice.”

With many employers keen to ensure their family-friendly benefits match up to those of their US counterparts, it is likely that emergency childcare will become more prevalent in the UK. “Emergency childcare is becoming a comprehensive part of [an organisation’s] employee benefits package,” says Wickham.

Key facts:

What are emergency childcare services?

Some employers offer emergency childcare services that simply provide staff with access to a database of contact details of nurseries, which is often accessed via an employee assistance programme (EAP). Others may offer staff access to a nursery that can provide back-up care.

Where can employers find more information about emergency childcare services?

Organisations such as the Daycare Trust, (, the National Day Nurseries Association ( Childcare Link ( and Working Families can provide further information on childcare.

Who are the main providers of emergency childcare services?

The main providers of emergency childcare services include Accor Services, Bright Horizons, Busy Bees and My Family Care. Grass Roots and Sodexo can point staff towards providers of emergency childcare.