Understanding work-family reconciliation challenges in SMEs

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Helen Norman is a Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School. Her research interests focus on fathers and fatherhood, the gendered division of labour and gender inequalities in work, employment and family life. Dr Bianca Stumbitz is a Senior Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with an emphasis on gender and work-family related issues, as well as working conditions more broadly.

Nursery School children and staff

Becoming a parent is a major life event. For many expectant and new parents, adjusting to the demands of parenthood is both exciting and daunting, and juggling childcare with work responsibilities can be a particular challenge.

Much progress has been made to support more ‘family-friendly’ ways of working in the UK with, for example, expansions to early years childcare, the right to request flexible working, and the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL).

However, such initiatives are not always accessible to all parents. Childcare is expensive; fathers rarely take up SPL because they are either not eligible, or cannot afford it; and fathers are less likely than mothers to request and take up flexible working, and are more likely to have their requests rejected by their employers.

Parents who work in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) are likely to face additional challenges. Often, SME employers do not have a dedicated Human Resources department, so it can be overwhelming for employers to support pregnant staff and new parents at the same time as running a business on a day-to-day basis.

In particular, smaller employers tend to have lower awareness of parenting rights, and often do not have written maternity or paternity policies and thus offer limited formal support for their staff making this transition.

Indeed, research shows that SME owners/managers are often more resistant to maternity and paternity protection regulations compared to their large firm counterparts, fearing that the time and costs involved will lead to a competitive disadvantage.

Why is this an issue?

Support for new and expectant parents is critical but we know very little about how this is managed in SMEs because most research exploring the transition to parenthood focuses on those who work in larger firms. This is a concern because SMEs comprise 99.9% of the business population, three fifths of the employment and around half of turnover in the private sector. This means that the experiences of expectant and new parents, and the effectiveness of ‘family-friendly’ policy supports, in the majority of UK workplaces is unknown.

Our ESRC-funded project seeks to address this knowledge gap by exploring the experiences and workplace challenges in SMEs from different perspectives. We are particularly interested in exploring the key challenges of managing new parenthood in an SME in comparison to a large workplace, and how these may be overcome.

Our questions for expectant and new mothers and fathers include: Do they face particular barriers when trying to balance work with family demands? What support is available (and has worked), and what support is not available? What support is needed? And how can we better support fathers in SME workplaces since they face different sets of challenges related to accessing policy supports?

In addition to the experiences of new and expectant parents, we are also exploring the challenges faced from the perspective of SME employers and SME co-workers who may not have parenting responsibilities but work with colleagues who do. We want to know how employers manage staff who have childcare responsibilities, what supports are needed for this, and how co-workers feel about colleagues who are managing work around parenting.

All this information will inform our work with key sector stakeholders – such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Federation of Small Businesses, Maternity Action, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), the Fawcett Society and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – who are supporting our work. It will also inform our policy recommendations on how to better support SME employers and their staff who are managing or about to reconcile work with parenting demands.

Are you a new or expectant parent who works in an SME (with between 1 and 249 staff)? Or are you an SME employer or co-worker who would like to share their experiences about managing staff with childcare responsibilities? Please get in touch with us and/or register your interest in participating by completing this short form. Participation in the project will be compensated. We are offering SME employers £150 for two interviews, and SME employees a £50 high street shopping voucher for three interviews.

You can also visit our project website for more information.

The Transition to Parenthood Project is funded by the ESRC and led by Dr Bianca Stumbitz at Middlesex University Business School. Dr Helen Norman is one of the co-investigators along with researchers at Middlesex University, the University of Manchester, Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute. For more information about the project, see the project website or contact Dr Bianca Stumbitz (B.Stumbitz@mdx.ac.uk) or Dr Helen Norman (h.norman@leeds.ac.uk).  

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