The changing shape of support for working grandparents

As retirement age increases, so too does the number of grandparents caught in a juggle of work and family commitments. Here, we look at how employers are stepping up with progressive policies to support working grandparents.

When Barbara Savage heard that her first grandchild was born she was consumed with emotion and excitement. She was on the phone to her son Dan, and could hear echoes of her new grandson, Ollie, and daughter-in-law Sarah in the background. Later that day, Barbara met Ollie in person and was overwhelmed with a similar emotion to that she experienced when Dan was born. She offered to support both Dan and Sarah in any way they needed, and they gratefully accepted. 

Like many grandparents today, Barbara works full-time and soon realised that she’d have to juggle her work and grandparenting responsibilities. While many people are retiring later, the issues facing working grandparents are rarely discussed, and very few organisations have policies in place to support them adequately. This presents an opportunity for progressive companies to differentiate themselves in the battle for talent. 

Grandparent daycare benefits everyone

Whether they’re minding infants, picking children up from school or stepping in when they’re unwell, more grandparents are taking responsibility for caring for their children’s offspring. Their assistance provides significant benefits to families—both financially and emotionally. 

The rising cost of childcare is a significant contributor to the growth of grandparent childcare. Research in Australia found that the cost of childcare is the biggest financial stress for 39% of parents with children under 12. With 900,000 children being cared for by grandparents, families are saving up to $2.9 billion a year in childcare costs. Similarly, research in the US has found that 47% of grandparents who live near their young grandchildren provide some form of childcare. 

While the cost of childcare is a significant factor contributing to the increase in grandparent childcare, some parents returning to work will only do so if they can leave their children with a relative. Grandparent care offers parents comfort in terms of the level of care and is often more flexible than formal childcare.

This assistance also plays an important role in the economy. It allows more parents to return to the paid workforce, take on additional work or undertake study or vocational education. For example, research in the UK that focused specifically on mothers found that childcare provided by grandparents has raised the labour force participation of mothers by 33%. This benefit crosses socio-economic boundaries, with women of all education levels being able to enter or rejoin the labour force thanks to their parents.

Both children and grandparents also benefit from spending more time together. In the UK, research has found that grandparents who have regular contact with their adolescent grandchildren have better health. And a 2016 study suggests that caring for grandchildren can increase one’s lifespan by five years.

The children also develop a strong bond with their grandparents and benefit socially from forming secure attachments with a broader group of adults than their parents alone. 

Barbara, an executive assistant who has been employed by accounting firm Pitcher Partners for over 24 years, agrees. Reflecting on taking grandparent leave to look after her new grandson she says, When Dan and Sarah returned to work they needed my help to ‘fill the gaps’. My assistance has involved cooking meals, looking after Ollie, and attending ‘library time’ and swimming lessons with him.

“I will have the privilege of creating a life-long connection with Ollie and can observe his growth through the many stages of his life. I can teach him the lessons I taught our own kids and probably be better at it, since even as a grandparent you recognise things you could have done better.” 

Grandparents are under pressure

While grandparents can benefit from being involved in the care of their grandchildren, it can also place more pressure on them. With the population living longer, many people are choosing to remain in the workforce to fund their retirement. In some instances, they’re also forced to continue working due to government policy. For example, the UK pension age will increase to 68 by 2037. 

There are also additional financial pressures involved with providing childcare. From buying a car seat to providing regular meals, caring for grandchildren can add to the financial strain. While some parents reimburse these costs or offer forms of financial assistance to their parents, many grandparents are left to bear some of the cost of providing childcare. This can have significant flow-on effects through the remainder of their lives, particularly if it eats into their pension or prevents them from saving enough for retirement. 

Physically, looking after young children can be tiring at any age, but for ageing grandparents it can be particularly exhausting. In addition, caring for children can take time away from friends which can isolate them from their community and can lead to other health problems. While it is most relevant to grandparent primary carers, providing extensive care to grandchildren can be linked to depression. 

These financial, physical and emotional issues are exacerbated because many employers and governments have been slow to acknowledge the role that many grandparents are now playing in raising the next generation. 

Government support for working grandparents

Grandparents play an increasingly important role in workforce participation rates and raising the next generation. The law has been slow to assist them, due in part to mixed stakeholder response and a need to prioritise review of shared parental leave for mums and dads. For example, the Australian government shelved plans to introduce one week’s paid leave for grandparents in 2007, and the UK put on hold plans to extend shared parental leave to grandparents in 2018

The German government has been somewhat progressive by allowing parents who are still in education or vocational training, or who are minors themselves, the ability to transfer their parental leave to grandparents. Working German grandparents can also take up to 10 days’ paid leave a year to look after a grandchild in an emergency.  

In Australia, some financial assistance is available to grandparents who take on more than 35% of the care responsibilities for their grandchildren. While it’s significant, it still leaves many working grandparents with the challenge of juggling their job, children and grandchildren. 

Companies leading by example

Thankfully, some employers are stepping in to fill that gap. For example, Pitcher Partners Melbourne updated its parental leave policy to provide grandparents with one week’s paid leave to support their families. 

Sarah Patrick, Business Partner – People Experience for Pitcher Partners, explains, “We’re keen to support our employees through all stages of family life and wanted to ensure our employees who are grandparents felt included and supported.

“Our Grandparent Leave Policy gives eligible employees the opportunity to spend quality time with their family upon the arrival of a new grandchild. The week of paid leave can be taken as single days, consecutive days or as a block to allow flexibility and meet our employee’s personal circumstances.” 

The policy has received positive feedback from employees since it was implemented in late 2018. “To-date four of our people have taken grandparent’s leave. They have appreciated having the additional time to enjoy their new grandchild and the flexibility it has given them in caring for their grandchild on an as needs basis,” says Sarah. 

Barbara is one of those employees. “The policy has been a great, forward-thinking initiative,” she says. “My suggestion to new grandparents would be to split the five days, since critical times of support are not necessarily required in the one hit. I’ve made the most use of the days offered by using them at specific times of most need.”

Other companies have also introduced a range of leave to give grandparents flexibility. Australian bank Westpac offers grandparents 52 weeks’ unpaid leave to be the primary caregiver to newborn grandchildren. While software giant Cisco Systems provides paid leave to grandparents in its global leave policy. The amount of time available depends on which country the grandparent is based in but ranges from a few days to a few weeks. 

An employer taking a different approach is Santander UK. It allows primary carers to share up to 16 weeks’ paid parental leave with the child’s grandparent if they work for the company as well. 

While employees benefit from these flexible arrangements, so do the organisations that choose to implement them. 

At Mercedes-Benz Financial Services in Australia, employees traditionally have a long tenure, leading to a large number of working grandparents. “They stay here because they find it a supportive place to work,” says Belinda Williams, Human Resources Advisor. As a result, the company is keen to encourage staff members to use the available flexibility options to assist with care for grandchildren. 

“We want to change the dialogue,” says Belinda. “It comes down to wanting to support carers in general in our organisation. We want to make people aware that caring can be in any capacity, whether it’s for a child, a parent, partner or grandchild.”

By removing barriers to entering, returning and remaining in the workforce for both parents and grandparents, employers can attract young talent and retain mature and experienced workers. With the battle for talent only set to increase, attractive leave options like grandparent’s leave and shared parental leave are a key differentiator for progressive employers. 

Having a grandchild is a significant event in anyone’s life, and offering flexible leave options is a powerful way for employers to acknowledge and support this momentous occasion. As Barbara explains, “A grateful respect emerges for employers who have the insight of understanding the needs of their staff and not just those having babies, but those who are also having grandbabies. The domino effect from this is harder working, more committed staff who feel they are recognised as parents/grandparents with not only acceptance, but support.” 

To receive further insights into parental benefits and how organisations are supporting working parents, subscribe to our industry newsletter here.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin