News & Insights: Employment

Childcare Implications for Employees

20 June 2023

Our Commercial Director Seamus McGranaghan wrote the following piece on childcare implications for employees in this morning’s Irish News


A FLEXIBLE approach to the regular 9 to 5 has become the norm for many employees since hybrid working became part of our everyday vernacular in 2020. So much so that more than two-thirds (77 per cent) of Gen Zs and millennials in the UK would consider leaving a post outright if their employer were to mandate going back to the office on a full-time basis.

But with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt recently putting the call out for full-time office working to be reinstated as the ‘default’ – that is, unless there are reasonable grounds for an employee to work remotely – it poses the question: is it time for all Northern Ireland business sectors to re-evaluate their hybrid working patterns?

And if so, what knock-on effect will this have for employees and how will it work in practical terms considering that the Republic of Ireland has gone as far as to enshrine it in law that employees have a legal right to request remote working under a set term of conditions.

It is estimated that nearly half (41 per cent) of employees are now hybrid working in Northern Ireland. That is a substantial figure, highlighting the extent to which a change to a more permanent office-based week could potentially have on our workforce and parents, in particular, who are already struggling with insurmountable childcare costs. One of the many benefits to remote working was the added flexibility it opened up for parents with childcare and other caring commitments.

This brings back into focus the acute childcare inequality across the four regions of the UK, which is having a direct impact on employers and ultimately their business as people struggle to afford adequate care. The spring budget outlined an extension of the 30 hours free childcare in England to children from nine months as well as an increase to the childcare support available through Universal Credit.

The new measures in England also included additional funding in wraparound care. This is in stark contrast to childcare provisions in Northern Ireland, which only saw an increase in the maximum monthly support for childcare costs through Universal Credit, further compounding pressures on working parents.

Before Stormont collapsed, under the New Decade New Approach deal, a childcare strategy was to be published outlining those areas in need of immediate attention, including how the measures proposed would benefit younger children. Add to this the ongoing cost of living crisis, and Northern Ireland being the region with the lowest disposable income in the UK – in fact, the lowest earning households here have seen their ‘discretionary income’ fall by 46.7 per cent in the last year – Northern Ireland finds itself at an extreme disadvantage without a functioning Executive.

People right across society are under huge financial pressures and the impact is being felt across all strands of the economy. However, many households are facing something of a Catch 22 – work from home and bear the brunt of higher energy costs or return to the office on a full-time basis and face the subsequent spike in costs to childcare.

In the absence of an Executive and no restoration in sight, we need to see more support for employers, employees and businesses. As Stormont remains collapsed and civil servants’ hands tied, additional support from the UK government would help ease the burden on working families.

Without it, the local labour market – itself a crucial cog for economic growth in Northern Ireland – will be left wanting.

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