With legislative changes affecting working parents coming into force over the next few years, employers can make good use of voluntary benefits to create a family-friendly work environment.
If you read nothing else, read this…
- Retail or leisure discounts help put money back into families’ pockets.
- Healthcare benefits, such as private medical insurance and health cash plans, may allow staff to extend cover to family members.
- Changes to the childcare vouchers scheme and shared parental leave, both coming into force in 2015, make it vital for employers to communicate their family-friendly policies to staff.
Benefits an organisation can offer to enhance its reputation as a family-friendly employer include emergency childcare, school holiday clubs, nursery discounts and travel insurance for family holidays, as well as childcare vouchers and flexible working arrangements.
Atkins, Barclays, Danone and Royal Mail Group were among the employers recognised as family-friendly in the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards in December 2013. The organisations were recognised for embracing the business benefits of flexible working and being proactive in creating a family-friendly workplace.
Employers can also use voluntary benefits , including retail discounts and savings, to help working parents. Andy Philpott, sales and marketing director at Edenred, says discounts can be a cost-effective benefit.
“Employee savings platforms give huge advantages to families in the workplace, especially when costs are high,” he says. “Employees can save money on groceries and other essentials. It’s a huge benefit that could save them hundreds of pounds a year.”
Over the past six years, Employee Benefits ’ Benefits Research has shown a significant rise in the proportion of employer respondents that offer voluntary benefits. Before the recession in 2007, just over half (52%) did so for all employees, and 6% did so for some staff. By 2013, this figure had reached 73% for all staff, and 8% for some staff.
The Benefits Research 2013, published in May 2013, found that the top voluntary benefit offered to staff by the 561 respondents was retail or leisure discounts.
Ben Black, managing director at My Family Care, says: “Employers want to be more family-friendly, which is why they offer these benefits for staff, to make them attractive to work for.”
Many working families see childcare vouchers as one of the most important benefits an employer can offer, but next year the current voucher system will be replaced by a tax-free childcare scheme for working families.
Under the new scheme, which will take effect in autumn 2015, the government will provide working families with 20% of their childcare costs, up to £1,200 initially for each child up to five years old, eventually extending this to cover children up to 12 years old by about 2020.
Black adds: “Childcare vouchers, as we know them, will end. There is a plus side and a down side to that. Perhaps vouchers are taken for granted. There is no increased level of staff engagement by having them, but they work and do put money in the hands of parents.”
Despite this change, only 2% of employer respondents to research by Jelf Employee Benefits intend to remove their childcare voucher offering before the government’s new scheme takes effect in 2015. The research, published in December 2013, found that 75% of respondents would consider retaining their existing childcare voucher scheme after 2015.
Extended healthcare provision
Benefits providers have noted an increase in the number of employers that allow staff to extend healthcare and wellbeing benefits to cover family members, including private medical insurance (PMI) and health cash plans. More employers are also introducing practical services that provide information to working parents, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs).
Mike Morgan, chief executive officer of PeopleValue, says: “PMI and health cash plans are very attractive when they are not just for the employee but embraced for the family as well.
“EAPs are also important and can provide a helpline and counselling for new parents that are stressed and need support to meet the challenges of working. EAPs don’t save employees money, but they are vital to staff health.”
Communication is key
The effectiveness of voluntary benefits in making an employer family-friendly can depend on communication, particularly because there can be strong demand from staff wanting information about parenting support.
Edenred’s Philpott says: “A lot of good organisations invest in making information available through online portals, webinars and professionals coming in to do presentations, not only for working parents, but for all employees.
“Working parents are time-poor but good employers look at, and recognise, the opportunity to take stress away by providing beneficial information services. It’s a nice way for an employer to say ‘we are family-friendly’.”
But putting appropriate benefits in place is just the start. Line-managers also have a vital role to play in creating a family-friendly environment. Zofia Bajorek, work effectiveness researcher at The Work Foundation, says: “There is a growing interest in family-friendly policies. All that is great, but they only become family-friendly if the organisation has the culture to support it. If there are barriers and line managers are less committed, this does not help.
“They have an important role to play to promote a culture that accepts policies such as flexible working, where it can aid the employee and the organisation.”
However, some employers still do not have simple family-friendly policies in place, such as helping parents return to the workplace. Un-family friendly Britain, research published by Mumsnet in November 2013, found that 26% of respondents work for organisations with no return-to-work policy.
Working parents legislation
New legislation covering shared parental leave will come into force in April 2015 and Julian Cox, partner at law firm Fletcher Day, says it could cause employers to change their provisions of helping parents back to work.
“No doubt the new rules will present a potential headache to organisations,” he says. “Employers will have to change their thinking for working families, which could present them with the same issues of no return-to-work policy for mothers as well as fathers.
“Employers will have to communicate the change in their family-friendly provisions, which may see more male employees off [work] for long periods of time.”
Voluntary benefits that provide support for parents can help employers to retain talent. The Work Foundation’s Bajorek says: “If an employer has all the policies and benefits in place, working parents are just not going to leave an organisation that is supportive of them.”
Doctor Clare Kelliher: Working parents’ policies need flexible approach
There is much evidence to show that employers that provide their employees with some support mechanisms, such as benefits to help them cope with the demands of their non-work lives, build loyalty and enhanced commitment.
Many employers have attempted to become more family-friendly in recent years and have developed policies such as providing enhanced parental leave, emergency care leave, workplace and/or subsidised childcare and various options for flexible working.
These policies have often been designed primarily to assist parents and carers and, in particular, mothers. However, it is important to recognise that all employees need to balance the demands of their work and life.
In this context, one size does not fit all and genuine flexibility is the key to allowing employers and employees to work out an arrangement that accommodates the particular needs of the employee and, at the same time, meets the needs of the business.
This need for a more flexible approach has been reflected in recent government policy, for example allowing parental leave to be shared and the opening up of flexibility provisions to all employees.
Flexibility recognises that different employees will have different needs and that their needs may change as they progress through different life stages. For example, someone providing elder care may want a different type of arrangement from someone who is pursuing education, sports training or religious activities.
Equally, although emergency support may be greatly appreciated by the employee that uses it, there is also a need to consider more general day-to-day support for employees. Employers may also be able to assist by helping employees with benefits, access to information and connecting them with others that may have relevant experience.
Doctor Clare Kelliher is a professor of work and organisation at Cranfield University
Case study: Atkins engineers family-friendly environment
Engineering consultancy Atkins promotes itself as a family-friendly employer , not only for female staff but also for male employees because of its benefits offering and flexible working arrangements.
The organisation won Workingmums.co.uk’s Innovation in Flexible Working Award in December 2013, and was named top employer overall for initiatives that support flexible working and women’s career progression.
Benefits offered by Atkins that are popular among working families include flexible working, extra holiday entitlement, childcare vouchers and informal employee assistance programmes, such as networks for working families to interact with each another.
Victoria Jones, recruitment manager at Atkins, says: “To help retain and attract more female employees to the organisation, flexible working can be facilitated from day one of a new starter’s employment. We want to attract talented people and if they can only work three or four days a week, we will facilitate that, where possible.”
Another popular family-friendly benefit at Atkins is allowing staff to buy up to 15 days’ more holiday. Jones says: “The ability to buy up to 15 days certainly makes a difference for working parents, as do childcare vouchers.”
One-third of Atkins employees take advantage the holiday-buying benefit.
The employer has also used return-to-work bonuses to encourage working parents back into the workplace and boost productivity.
Sue Cooper, HR director, says: “All the benefits we offer are beneficial to the family. They show we have an open approach to working parents and encourage that work-life balance feel.
“We want to make it feel normal to buy extra leave. There is certainly a big sense of being family-friendly at Atkins. We are working hard to support families and to help employees feel comfortable in a big organisation. The benefits offered help to develop them and their families.”