How has your summer been? And how has it been for the working parents in your workforce? For most it is a struggle if we’re honest. Those endless weeks out of school were designed in an era when homes were presumed to have one breadwinner and one homemaker, says Jennifer Liston-Smith.

School holidays now bear little resemblance to the annual leave of most employees. And it’s not a great use of that leave when a couple plays tag team with their precious days off, caring for children; harder still for single parents.

And for those who ‘manage’ with children in the background, our research (Parents under Pressure, November 2022) shows that of the 53 percent of parents who occasionally or regularly manage without childcare, 55 percent say it’s a struggle and cite affordability and access as the main barriers.

Now attitudes are changing, and parents are no longer willing to suffer in silence. Remember that quiet revolution recently, when parents switched from being magicians – skilfully disappearing our children during working hours – to circus performers, displaying gravity-defying juggling acts, all on camera? That can’t be un-seen now.

Support from employers

In our Modern Families Index we gauge reactions annually to the statement: ‘I feel confident discussing family-related issues with my employer’. In 2023, an impressive 71 percent of our random sample of 3,000 working parents agreed. In 2015, it had been 47 percent, and has climbed year on year, escalating since 2020.

With commentators such as workplace well-being expert Lorna Borenstein, encouraging “parenting loudly” since April 2021, perhaps a quiet revolution is the wrong term. Either way, families are much more visible now to employers and more employees feel comfortable discussing them. But is talking about it enough?

When we carried out our annual survey of client employees – the Work+Family Snapshot – this year, we asked what support from employers makes employees loyal and likely to stay. Among over 1,750 participants, the favourite support was ‘employer-subsidised regular childcare’ (71%) closely followed by ‘employer-subsidised back-up or emergency childcare’ (67%). By contrast, ‘Advice or support on managing work-life balance’ was favoured by just 21 percent, trumped among other things by ‘tutoring or educational support for children’ (28%) and of course ‘Ensure line managers have the knowledge/tools to support me in managing my work life balance’ (50%).

What about a work-life balance?

So, employees value practical support and concrete action. Good managers score higher than advice on work-life balance; but helping out with care comes top of the class. When we look around, it’s clear that the field of employee experience has expanded to cater for this, and employees are not hesitating to take it up. At Bright Horizons, we see that back-up care uses are up by an average of 42% for the UK and Ireland compared with this time last year.

To bring to life what it means when employers take action genuinely to ease the pressure for employees, let’s consider a couple of examples. HRreview followers will remember Tracey Ismay, People Partner, UK, joining the panel for an Inside HR webinar in February 2023. Tracey talked about the firm covering 20 days of back-up care per employee per year; this means their people can get last minute care when plans change, or a school is closed for example, or an elderly parent needs extra support when coming out of hospital, at the firm’s expense. In the summer holidays, this includes access to summer camps and clubs or childminders – as one employee put it “I’ve used a local childminder to look after my 5 year old. This takes the stress out of school holidays, and makes it much easier to concentrate on work without juggling! She has plenty of fun activities up her sleeve for at home / gets them out and about to various places too”.

Mental health and education

What’s happening when great employers like Swiss Re put this support in place is not only that the employee is able to show up to work uninterrupted, but it also eases their worries about their children’s development and education. This year’s Modern Families Index showed half of employees (50%) are concerned about their children’s mental health and 48 percent are still concerned about educational catchup. Swiss Re has stepped up even further on this: since last November, their back-up care provision includes scope for employees to convert a back-up care use into four sessions of online tutoring.

Another great HRreview webinar guest, Amanda Weekes, Procurement & Contract Manager, at the University of Surrey, joined an Inside HR panel in April 2023. Amanda spoke about the University’s onsite nursery provision which provides early education and also addresses that very current concern of employers: the cost of living. University staff save tax and National Insurance through Surrey’s salary sacrifice scheme.

Interestingly, providing such practical supports opens up the conversations even further as the employee trusts that the employer ‘gets it’. That statistic quoted earlier, where 71 percent of the general working parent population feel confident discussing family issues at work, rises to 76 percent among back-up care users and 84 percent among parents using employer-sponsored nursery places.

Family is now a higher priority

It is important to bear in mind as employers that working parents want career success as well as work-life fit. With all the social media trends about #quietquitting and #lazygirljobs, some might imagine busy parents wanting an easy ride at work. Far from it: again, our 2023 Work+Family Snapshot research offered lots of statements to agree or disagree with, and it emerges that the rising generation wants to ‘have it all’. Among 18-34 year olds this year, 56 percent said family was a higher priority than previously. At the same time, approaching half (45%) indicated higher career ambitions than before, which is up 6 percentage points on last year. When we offered the statement ‘My career ambitions are less of a driver now’ just 15 percent of 18-34 year olds agreed.

The working parents in your workforce are looking for practical ways to ease the juggle so that they can stay, progress and pursue fulfilling careers while knowing their children are not only cared for but also being educated and developed. We held a recent round of Peer Council breakfast round-tables for partners. Across our gatherings for the finance, legal and bio-tech/pharma sectors, pre-event polling showed talent attraction & retention, together with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and Wellbeing top the list of employer focal points. Kudos to those employers recognising that working parents are a key constituency in the inclusion picture and who are paying attention to their attraction, retention and wellbeing.


Jennifer Liston-Smith is Head of Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons.





Jennifer is the Head of Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons.

For over 20 years, Jennifer has been relentless in pursuit of innovation, identifying, defining and sharing best practice and ‘next practice’ for leading global employers in flexible working, family-friendly and wellbeing programmes, closing the gender pay gap and promoting gender-inclusive parenting. She is a sought-after speaker, writer, conference moderator and consultant on these topics and more.

Jennifer set-up, and for a decade led, the Coaching & Consultancy side of what became Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions advising employers in banking, professional services, STEM and wider sectors on programmes for working parents and carers and evaluating their impact and ROI, as well as developing coaches and coaching capability.

She now focuses on identifying overarching trends through research and through advising employers and translating these insights into solutions and practical actions.