What are we trying to fix? Mothers, fathers, or work?

What are we trying to fix? Mothers, fathers, or work?

Last week, working dads hit the headlines. And about time too.

As the Women & Equalities Committee announced its findings that working dads are being failed by workplace policies, radio and tv news were alight with the talk of paternity leave, with the usual comparisons to how things are done in Sweden, the apparent holy grail of work life equilibrium.

In our own lives, we tiptoe along a tightrope of constantly competing family and work commitments. While I suspect it was easier for me as a mother to request some form of flexible working than it would be for most fathers, ultimately, employment still failed me. Twice.

Last month’s mega trends report from the CIPD showed that the number of people choosing self-employment just keeps on rising. The growth being driven predominantly by women.

Have women in the UK all of a sudden got the self-employment bug?

Or has employment failed them too?

As an economy, we have invested huge time and resource in changing legislation and workplace culture so that it can be more ‘motherhood friendly’. And yet women are leaving the workforce in ever increasing numbers.

Something just isn’t working.

Old school stuffed-shirt rhetoric would say it’s us women. We don’t work as employers need us to. We ask for too much and give too little in return. The men, after all, are the reliable mainstay of the workplace. Rarely asking to work flexibly. Never leaving early to attend a school play. Never taking a day off at short notice to care for a sick child.

Except that’s just not true.

Today’s generation of dads want more than any other in recent history to be in equilibrium with their work and life so they can play an equal part in raising their children and running the home. All the dads under 40 that I know, including, I am glad to say, the one I am sharing parenting with, are doing this already, work flexibility or no flexibility.

So after decades of trying to fix women in the workplace, and beyond maternity legislation arguably failing, we should now try to fix the men?

Sarah Jackson OBE, Chief Executive of Working Families doesn’t think so. And I agree. The charity’s most recent Modern Families Index showed that men are already making compromises. Turning down job opportunities and promotions just as many women do, in order to maintain some semblance of balance.

Except it’s not working. Because we are trying to fix the wrong things.

Parenthood doesn’t stop at the end of maternity or paternity leave, or when our children start school. It is a lifelong commitment.

Focusing on equalising maternity leave and paternity leave ignores the enormous elephant in the room that, for the most part, conventional employment and family life are pretty incompatible.

People string it together of course. Because roofs and heads dictate that they have to. Often at the expense of their own physical or mental health and wellbeing, or that of their partner, or children.

Equalising maternity and paternity leave does not help the family with a teenager having an anxiety crisis. Or the grandparent whose son or daughter has a child with a long term health condition or disability and desperately needs an extra pair of hands. It also doesn’t help the son or daughter whose own parents are ageing and may need daily help because of frailty, dementia, or cancer.

This is life. It’s big and messy and complicated.

It happens to all of us in one form or another and if employers want to maintain the quality of their workforces, they need to start reshaping what they do and how they do it.

What we collectively need from employers are employment and career opportunities that are flexibly and genuinely open to people at all stages of their lives, so they don’t have to stop when another part of their life demands pole position.

But bosses haven’t caught on. According to recent figures, less than one in ten ‘quality jobs’ (paying £20,000 FTE or above) are advertised as being open to flexible-working options. This is trapping millions of employees who are either unable to progress their careers on a flexible basis or are locked-out of the jobs market completely due to their need to work flexibly.

So what do we do?

How do we fix work so that employment and family are not an either/or.

As Sarah Jackson said, “There is not one type of job that couldn’t benefit from being flexible in some way, even an A&E consultant can job share.”

Creating a flexible and supportive workplace can come in many guises.

Innovative shift pattern planning.

Annualised hours.

Unlimited leave as seen at Netflix and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Paid carers’ leave as recently announced by Aviva. These are the shining lights of hope in an employment market still hellbent on bums on seats nine-to-five.

These are the companies that have realised just in time that there are real risks to business in employees choosing to resign in search for a better work-life fit. These are the companies who have realised that flexible working is not a bolt-on to solve individual employee problems one by one, it’s about developing a culture where an organisation’s people are in control and are measured on results not presenteeism.

Parenting and caring are a life reality. Work is a requirement to pay the bills and for most of the population still, that means being employed.

We shouldn’t have to choose between the two, or be forced into taking our chances in the self-employment market if we don’t want to, simply in order to protect our own health and wellbeing and that of our families.

 

Finding work that works as a mother and carer #IWD18

Finding work that works as a mother and carer #IWD18

Seven years ago, on 8th March 2011, while I was busy giving birth to my second child, thousands of women marched the sun strewn streets of London to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

As I peered out of the 6th floor windows of the St Thomas’s Hospital birth suite at the sea of purposeful female bodies and placards crossing Westminster Bridge below me, I never imagined that day would leave its mark on me as any kind of feminist or campaigner. Between greedy gasps of glorious gas and air, I had no idea that the little boy I was about to give birth to would open my eyes to a world where women are so often vastly disadvantaged.

I didn’t know my little boy would have a disability. I didn’t know I was about to become not just a parent but also a carer. I didn’t know that would put me in a position where continuing to follow my career path in the conventional way would become impossible.

The juggling that today’s working parents face in keeping it all together at home and at work is a constant headline hitter.      When caring responsibilities are thrown into the mix, for all too many parents they soon find the option to juggle just isn’t there at all. The balls are not in their hands, or even in their court.

For many parents, they soon discover that there is no workable equilibrium between the demands of employment and the demands of caring for a child with special needs or disabilities. Whether through exhaustion from managing night-time care, or through finding themselves buried under a constant avalanche of malco-ordinated health and social care appointments, the window for productive work shrinks rapidly.

Even for the lucky few, whose child sleeps without need for medication, feeds or nighttime settling, and whose appointment load is reduced to just a few a month through ruthless navigation of the system, the chance of finding employment flexible enough to allow for the inevitable emergencies, equipment deliveries and paediatric or education reviews is slim.

But talk to just a few parents of children with disabilities who have managed to find work that works, and they will tell you that work can be not just a financial necessity but a sanity saver too.

 

Right now, employers are just beginning to switch on to the benefits of flexible working. There are the enlightened few, who have been doing it for years, and reaping the productivity and loyalty rewards as a result, but for the mainstream it is still early days.

While we are on this path to flexible working becoming the norm for the majority of office based jobs (because it can and absolutely should), please let’s not forget the carers amongst us.

Most often, it’s the women who are the parent carers.

Most often, they aren’t returning to the workforce. I am one of just 16% who has, compared to 74% of mothers of non-disabled children.

We need to raise up the 16%.

 

 

This post was written for International Women’s Day 2018, as part of #whenibecameamother being hosted on Instagram by @steph_dontbuyherflowers

 

Who cares at work? Are you investing in the carers in your workforce?

Who cares at work? Are you investing in the carers in your workforce?

Four years ago I sat in front of a group of parliamentarians at Westminster, alongside four engaging, intelligent women who all had successful careers and who also happened to be parents and carers for their disabled children.

We were there to share our stories about the childcare crisis for disabled children, and the extreme challenges of maintaining any kind of career around having a child with disabilities.

Under the wings of Contact, and Working Families, who paved the way in campaigning for affordable childcare provision for disabled children, we achieved widespread awareness of the need for change, and an amendment to new childcare legislation to help make childcare more affordable for parent carers, who often pay a huge premium for scant provision.

Since that time, the conversation has moved on. Childcare provision still needs to evolve. Massively so. But what’s really exciting is that the other main driver in making it possible for parent carers to work – flexible employment – seems to be undergoing quite a revolution.

The movement towards flexible working becoming the norm in the UK gained major ground in the UK last year. Though the benefits of flexible working had been established many years previously, in 2017 it was the topic du jour for companies alongside workplace wellbeing. Report after report was published, proclaiming the ‘workplace revolution’, with firms not embracing flexible working finger pointed as being out of step with employees.

Perhaps it’s the millennial effect, as more and more of the next generation take leadership positions in the workforce. A generation that knows it is possible to carry out many work tasks effectively, more so in fact, when you have greater choice over where and when you will do so.

Maybe you are one of those millennial leaders, or perhaps you’re the other side of 40 and have been managing teams for years. Either way, you will surely be thinking about how to embrace flexibility in your team or in your business.

The reality is that if you’re not, employees will leave your organisation and seek work elsewhere. Either at companies who are embracing the change or by working for themselves, as increasing numbers of people are doing because technology is enabling us to do so.

The latest Modern Families Index from Working Families showed that work is taking a heavy toll on home life for many. Employees who come home too drained to even cook a meal, with day after day of juggling family or caring commitments with an inflexible work schedule, are finally saying they have had enough and are voting with their feet.

For parent carers with disabled children, the challenge of combining work, parenting and caring can be insurmountable.

Climbing a mountain of managing personal care, feeds, medication and therapy, school runs and the usual breakfast rush before clocking in for a day’s work.

Juggling not just school plays, celebration assemblies and sports days, which you actually want to be at, with a multitude of things you don’t want to be at but have to.

Team Around the Child meetings, EHCP reviews, paediatric appointments of multiple types all at uncoordinated times, wheelchair assessments at the opposite end of the county, social care reviews, adaptations meetings, equipment and medication deliveries. These commitments quickly fill up the calendar if you let them and it’s often a fight with health and social care to reduce the appointment load.

Coordinating all of that while keeping one’s bottom appended to a chair in a particular office for 40+ hours a week is probably impossible. Certainly I’ve never managed it and nor would I want to, parent carer or otherwise.

What is possible though, is making work work around these commitments. Working from home, and videoing in to team meetings on the day of an equipment delivery. Starting early or finishing late to accommodate a TAC meeting. Making use of the hospital wifi to whip up a report or a proposal while waiting for an appointment. Holing up in a cafe on a Saturday morning to write a strategy.

It’s estimated that between 1 in 7 and 1 in 9 people in the workforce have caring responsibilities at home, be that for a disabled child or a sick or elderly relative. With up to million more UK workers secretly juggling caring responsibilities with their jobs, because they are nervous about telling employers.

If you’re a manager or a business owner, you will almost certainly have carers in your teams.

If you don’t know who they are, they’re pretty easy to spot even if they don’t identify themselves as such.

More than likely they will be the ones avoiding the afternoon water cooler chit chat. Not because they are anti-social, but because they HAVE to leave on time.

More than likely they will be the ones who never pull a sickie. Not because they are never ill but because they know a time will come when they need to ask for unpaid leave to accommodate their caring responsibilities.

More than likely they will be the ones who show unfailing commitment to their work. Not because they are workaholics but because disability and ill-health is expensive and they NEED that salary to keep on rising. Perhaps to pay for premium-priced specialist childcare, or to buy a wheelchair accessible vehicle, or to adapt their home.

At the moment, the law is not on our side as carers. There is no legal right to ‘carer’s leave’. Most of us resort to using up annual leave entitlement to manage caring needs, taking unpaid leave or taking sick leave if the stress of working and caring starts to affect their own health.

Until paid carer’s leave is a legal requirement with government funding attached – like statutory maternity pay and sick pay – there are things you can do as an employer, a business owner or a team manager to help your company hold on to talented people in whom you have inevitably invested significant time and money.

  • Introduce paid leave for carers off your own back. It’ll pay for itself in loyalty and talent retention.
  • Enable staff to work flexibly wherever possible. Use technology to your advantage. Focus on productivity not presenteeism.
  • Remember dads are carers too. This isn’t about just women in the workforce and nor should it be.
  • Foster an open culture that acknowledges your employees have a home life that will always be more important to them than you are.
  • Put workplace wellbeing at the heart of your people management. A well and happy employee will always do a better job, at work and at home. Stress helplines and yoga classes are just a sticking plaster though. The key to wellness at work is to place realistic workloads and clear objectives on your staff. Don’t leave them floundering under overwhelming or vague expectations. It’s a recipe for burnout, particularly for carers for whom there is no or little rest break at home.

With the cost of replacing talented employees in the many thousands, and the number of carers in the workforce expected to rise massively as the population ages and medical advances mean more children with disabilities survive, you will be saving yourself a packet by investing in your carers now.

Careering off-track or stalling on re-entry: the hidden brain drain of parent carers from the workforce

Careering off-track or stalling on re-entry: the hidden brain drain of parent carers from the workforce

Since Motherland exploded onto our TV screens last month, the conversation about working parenthood has shifted up a gear. Whether you relate to the character parodies or find them slightly absurd, there isn’t a mother I’ve spoken to who hasn’t recognised a bit of their own lives in the narrative.

As a female growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was always supported to believe that I would have a career. That I could be independent and successful in my chosen path. And, for the most part, I have been. Probably a bit of a ‘Julia’, with a slightly non-descript creative consultancy career and a comfortable home life but with far greater marital equity and less rage than the Motherland character enjoys. (I mean, just where is her husband FGS any why hasn’t she left him yet is all I could think as I binge watched on iPlayer…)

What I hadn’t accounted for though was just how hard it would be, nor how increasingly necessary it would become, to maintain my career once our second child was born with disabilities.

With my first, it was easy. At 8 months, she went off to childcare and we both went to work. A small independent nursery followed by a nanny-share, then a regular pre-school, saw her through her early years contentedly. Childcare was easy to come by, if pricey, and I never doubted my ability to return to work.

With a disabled child, there were no childcare options at all.

As well as the absence of childcare, my calendar was overwhelmed with disability related commitments. Orange had no diagnosis so on top of the twice weekly physiotherapy appointments there were diagnostic appointments, medical reviews and assessments to coordinate.

Unable to return to work as planned, we had to sell our home and move in with my mum while we found our feet again.

In the end, it took me almost three years to build up again to full time work. I have only been able to do this because we moved across the country, have family help and both of us have jobs that mean we can work flexibly with just enough frequency to keep all the plates spinning.

But I am one of an extreme minority.

As Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party and mother to a child with autism says in her piece today for Working Families, we are ‘a small – and very grateful – minority‘ and yet still ‘perpetually worried that it might all fall apart‘.

According to research from Contact A Family, I am one of only 16% of mothers of disabled children who are in paid work, compared to 61% of mothers with typical children.

Women with disabled children, and let’s face it, it is pretty much always women rather than men, are careering out of the workforce at an alarming rate.

And why?

  • The unavailability of suitable childcare for disabled children.
  • The lack of school wrap around care and school holiday care for disabled children.
  • The chaos of medical, health, social care and other appointments that the NHS and local authorities are failing to co-ordinate effectively for children with multiple and complex needs.
  • Cuts in already too sparse respite care and short breaks for disabled children. And the hilarity of the fact that local authorities will allow families to use these services to ‘have a break’ but we are precluded from using them to enable us to work – to bring in an income, pay the bills and to support our families. So, for many families, the cycle of dependency on the state that they don’t want continues.
  • Unavailability of appropriate schooling – The BBC revealed last week in their #BBCsend focus that more and more parents of disabled children are being forced into home schooling because the appropriate schooling for their child’s needs just doesn’t exist.
  • Inflexible employers who do not acknowledge that both men and women have a role to play in child care, particularly when there is a disabled child in the family.
  • A lack of understanding by employers of carers’ needs and rights in the workplace.
  • No provision for paid carers’ leave.
  • Tiredness. Caring for a disabled child often means broken sleep, heavy lifting and managing behaviour. Without adequate support, this can leave parents with very little else left to give.
  • Ill health. Disability and complex medical needs come with a great deal more time spent in hospital than most.

It’s a complex picture, but certainly the first eight items on the list are surmountable with changes to the law and education, health and social care systems to support us.

It might sound expensive but cost analysis carried out for Working Families by Oliver Wyman showed that even just one small change in employment law – a right to adjustment leave for the parents of disabled children – could result in a potential annual net gain to the economy of up to £500 million.

Working Families wants to hear from parent carers about their experiences of combining work and caring. It will help them to campaign to help more parents to get into or stay in paid work. The more evidence there is, the louder the voice.

If you are a parent carer who works, or who wants to, please fill in their survey by 13 December to have your views included.

 

When work and wellbeing didn’t mix

When work and wellbeing didn’t mix

This is the first time I have written anything for the blog since April. It was round about the Spring when I knew something definitely wasn’t right.

Since then, I’ve been right down to the bottom of the ocean and back up again. Not the exotic, pretty parts of the seabed, bursting with rainbow corals and shimmering shoals. Where I went, it was dark. Murky. Where you can’t see your hand in front of your face and you don’t know what’s coming up behind you next. But you know it’s a long way back up to the surface, if you can find it.

There was a time when I thought that negotiating the smoke and mirrors of the education and social care systems for Orange would call time on my sanity. This is the brutal truth for more SEND parents than I wished I knew. So far, for me, it hasn’t. But since I’ve had the weather eye of a hawk on that front, sharing the load with family and my band of SEND sisters, I missed the hurricane as it snuck up from the other side.

When Orange arrived, he changed my outlook on life, and work. I wanted to do something that mattered. Which isn’t always easy when you’ve built your career in public relations in the City and Soho. So getting a senior role at a NHS and social care provider finally felt like I could make a difference. A job where my personal values could come to life through my work. A career coach’s dream, right?

For the first year it felt amazing. I was good at this. Using my skills for something real and important. Engaging my brain in a way that became a wonderful distraction from dealing with the 5,674 ways the local authority was trying to make Orange’s home adaptations and school transport into a sticky quagmire.

When the storm clouds started to gather at work, I thought I could bat them away by listening to audiobooks about ‘how to be brilliant’ and blaring Tim Ferriss podcasts that would show me how to tackle any sort of work crisis that might come my way.

I thought that because I’ve had to tackle challenges so far out of the ordinary, like resuscitating my own child, that I could tolerate pretty much anything and come out of it unscathed.

But I couldn’t.

No amount of inspirational podcasts and books about creative brilliance and productivity could relieve me of the uncomfortable fact that being in my job was beginning to compromise my sanity.

A sorry but familiar tale of resource and people-power deficits that I thought I could overcome by just working myself harder. For longer.

A broken corporate culture that I thought I could overcome by imagining I was wearing a coat of armour at my desk, deflecting arrows as they flew.

The stuff of fantasy. But not the marshmallow kind.

None of this is news to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or switched on the tv in recent months. It’s health and social care. It’s the UK. There’s not enough money. Not enough people. And what happens then? People have a crap time at work and do a worse job.

I held on too long.

Why?

Because it matters to me that I work. That I have a career. That what I do makes a difference.

That as a mother of a disabled child I will cling on by my fingernails to the opportunity for financial independence and career development. Because I know others want that too.

I have campaigned about the rights of mothers of disabled children to have careers, too hard to just give it up. So walking out the door on an intolerable situation was out of the question.

In the end, my brain and body did it for me. Pushing too hard for too long eventually saw me unable to get out of bed bar a visit to the GP to find out why I felt like I was dying. Why I thought I was having heart attacks in the middle of the night. Why I couldn’t sleep. Why I spent two weeks on leave from work in the summer that I don’t remember a minute of.

It was a wake up call.

Months on and I have resigned from my job, with shiny new consultancy work waiting for me on the other side. I have started boxing again. Seen friends I haven’t seen in months. Taken up a new writing hobby as a theatre critic. And opened up this blog again to find a raft of messages from readers I didn’t know were reading but have given me a refreshed sense of why I write.

Because this matters. And I can make change happen on the outside. I don’t need to work inside the system to do it.