Male staff may not be aware of their entitlement to childcare benefits or might feel awkward about claiming them, so employers should ensure they know the facts, says Nicola Sullivan
In the first few months of their children’s lives, some men may feel they are forced to play a secondary role, because of both the physical dependence babies have on their mothers, and society’s stereotypical expectations of each parent’s role in caring for their child.
So it is perhaps not surprising that many male employees often take little notice of the childcare benefits their employer offers. Yet these are just as relevant for all staff, regardless of gender. This poses a significant challenge for employers if they are to maximise appreciation of the perks they provide, such as childcare vouchers.
The move away from the traditional view that childcare is primarily a woman’s role is reflected in the government’s plan to increase the length of paid paternity leave on offer from the current two weeks to up to 26 weeks in the second half of a child’s first year provided the mother returns to work. This legislation around shared parental leave is due to be introduced within the next two years.
The government-backed review into flexible working conducted by Imelda Walsh, HR director at Sainsbury’s, also highlighted the fact that the benefit does not simply help women. Called Right to request flexible working: a review of how to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of older children, and published in May this year, it proposed that the right to request flexible working arrangements should be extended to all parents with children up to the age of 16 years.
But despite such moves, some male employees still perceive that a stigma is attached to working flexibly or taking extended parental leave. They are concerned that it could affect how they are viewed by colleagues or their future career prospects, for example. One way for employers to demonstrate this is not the case is by highlighting examples of men who already work flexibly at all levels of the organisation.
Whatever childcare benefits employers want to promote to male staff, they should ensure their communications campaign is tailored to engage this group by setting out how the perks are relevant to them.
But Nick Howard, a principal in Mercer’s workforce, communication and change team, says employers must ensure they fully understand the business reasons behind the benefits they provide before changing the way they communicate them to individual groups.
“Employers need to have a really good understanding about why they provide these benefits, what it says about them as an employer, how that fits into the way they want to be viewed more broadly by their employees as an employer, what their employee value proposition [is], and how this all fits in together. When they understand that, then they can start thinking about the messages that sit behind these benefits and policies, and how they target those messages at different groups,” explains Howard.
In doing so, employers should also ensure staff know exactly what benefits they are entitled to. Jacqueline Otten, a principal at Towers Perrin, says: “It is also about targeting information around who it is relevant to. People don’t realise what the requirements are, who is eligible for it, and what it actually means.”
Historically, much of the communication around perks such as childcare vouchers has focused on the advantages for female staff and their children, but employers are increasingly becoming aware of the need to make messages also appeal to male staff.
Change of emphasis
This could mean changing the emphasis of the communication, such as highlighting the tax and national insurance (NI) savings that employees stand to make by taking up childcare vouchers. Andy Philpott, marketing director at Accor Services, says these can amount to as much as £1,195 a year. “The fact that it actually saves money is very much the end benefit of a childcare voucher scheme. How staff choose to spend that money is up to them,” he explains
Newcastle City Council, for example, drew on its employees’ interests outside of work in a bid to make its childcare voucher scheme more appealing to male staff. Its communication materials included the image of a father and son watching a football match. On the backs of the models’ football shirts were the numbers 1195, illustrating the amount that could be saved.
Offering and promoting childcare benefits to all employees is also an effective way for organisations to achieve equality and inclusion, which can help to meet certain business objectives. For example, organisations that offer childcare benefits to a workforce that is predominantly male not only illustrate that the benefit can be used by men, but may also encourage women to work in what is traditionally a male-oriented environment.
Nicola Cull, senior communications consultant at Watson Wyatt, says such an approach is being taken by a large transport organisation, with a primarily male workforce, when communicating its childcare voucher scheme, which was launched at the beginning of last year.
“That organisation has a very specific business objective about inclusion and equality and is gearing up for future changes and a future business strategy. As a result of that, it identified that it needed to recruit and retain more women. It thought that introducing and communicating very strongly the benefit of childcare vouchers was very much in support of the business agenda for equality and inclusion,” says Cull.
The images used for the transport organisation’s communication materials aimed to draw attention to the relationship between child and parent, while highlighting the fact that single or married fathers were equally entitled to vouchers, even if the mother of the child also used them.
Louise Barker, commercial director at Sodexho Pass, adds employers should keep their communication of childcare benefits clear and regular, while ensuring staff know these benefits can be used by both parents. “There could be an assumption that savings involved in childcare vouchers are pretty much a family saving. The messaging has to be incredibly clear that this is a benefit per parent. The higher the take-up, the higher the savings, so investing in communication absolutely makes sense,” she says.
Posters, leaflets, on-site workshops and information days are all effective ways of promoting childcare benefits. Quirky, fun and gimmicky publicity materials are often the most likely to attract attention, says Barker.
Making it as easy as possible for employees to sign up for childcare benefits may also help to boost take up across all staff. Scott Heyhoe, commercial director at You at Work, says online systems that allow employees to apply from either work or home are a major selling point.
“Being able to access the system at work or home, whatever role employees play in a partnership, works around their working practices and works to help their work-life balance,” he adds.
Communicating childcare benefits to male staff
Employers must have a solid understanding of the business reasons why they offer childcare benefits before working out the best way to communicate them to male staff.
Posters, leaflets and on-site workshops and information days are all effective ways of promoting childcare benefits.
Quirky, fun and gimmicky publicity materials are likely to attract the attention of male staff.
Communication materials may need to contain messages different from those designed to appeal to female staff.
Online systems that can be accessed from work and at home by either parent make life easier and can help boost take up.
Newcastle City Council scores with football imagery
Newcastle City Council uses football-themed communication materials to promote its childcare voucher scheme to male staff.
It revamped the way it promotes the benefit at the beginning of this year after the scheme, which launched in 2006, received a lower-than-average take-up. The HR team worked with its provider, Accor Services, to develop communication materials featuring a picture of a father and son at a football match with the numbers 1195 written across their T-shirts to illustrate the number of pounds that could be saved in a year by using the benefit.
Jill Hunton, human resources adviser, says: “A range of posters were designed and the one we chose had a picture of a father and son in football shirts to target male [staff]. A lot of male employees didn’t know they were eligible for the scheme.”
Since the image of the father and son was introduced on posters and flyers to promote the scheme, Hunton says interest in childcare vouchers has increased.
The council has also held two awareness days, where representatives from Accor Services provided information on the scheme, and staff were sent details about the vouchers via email4 and letters.