The Real Cost of Child Care Breakdowns? More Than a Day Off

Dad losing work hours to find child care

About a decade and a half ago, economists coined the term "presenteeism" to describe what happens when employees try to work with a headache. Not surprisingly, it didn't do much for productivity. And the distraction added up - collectively costing more than the losses for employees who just closed up shop and stayed home.

But what if the present-but-absent syndrome wasn't an actual headache, but a metaphorical one - a sitter who doesn't show up? A school that’s going remote?  A nanny needing an unexpected day off?


Arguably, that's a bigger problem. A headache only lasts the course of the problem. Child care problems can linger for days. It's the moment the notification arrives from school, plus the desperate, time-consuming calls to find help, the involuntary tics of checking and rechecking the phone to see if anyone's responded to the call, and then interviews and background checks for an unknown found online. 

Eight hours without school on a Wednesday can cost the organization much of the Monday and Tuesday before. And the higher the stakes - a hard-won meeting with a prospect versus a garden-variety day of work - the greater the panic-stricken distraction and the more cataclysmic the potential cost. It's even worse when the worry, stress, and obsessing fail to produce an actual sitter. Then you've lost potential client meetings and billable hours as well a couple of days work.

It's the unappreciated double-whammy of the child care dilemma that often goes undiscussed. Our data shows that people without child care are losing eight days annually to child care problems. The companion statistic is that they're also no doubt contributing to $300 billion in losses related to workplace stress. And this was before the pandemic made the terms “regular school day” an oxymoron. 


Among the parents we talked to, many were lucky to have one person on speed dial to pinch hit. Part of the problem is guilt. Parents are loathe to rely on relatives, and many have missed work simply because they couldn't bear to dial up a favor...again. Social distancing has only made it harder. Help can take weeks to find. For last-minute care employees don't source themselves, they'll also pay daily placement fees in addition to hourly rates, figures that can add up.

"This mismatch between child care needs and work demands forces parents to assemble a complicated bundle of arrangements," wrote the New York Times. "These arrangements can be unstable and difficult to maintain, stress relationships and threaten the stability of already precarious work situations."


The economics of solving the problem just make sense. Employer-sponsored back-up networks that subsidize care - and just as importantly, source and vet it - do more than avoid the above losses of multiple days. One estimate put the savings for a 250-person company at $75,000 per year. Add that to the risk of losing employees - a real threat right now as more and more women opt out - and you've got some real ROI.

And it's not theoretical. Just how not theoretical can be read in one Unilever employee's experience. "By signing up [for employer-sponsored back-up care], I've taken that responsibility off of my plate and a competent professional has taken that on for me," she told us when a nanny canceled before an important client meeting.

"I don't have to make 20 different calls. I don't have to ask family or friends for a favor. I don't have to worry about it. I know that back-up care is going to show up when I need them to."

Are you looking for information about Bright Horizons centers? Learn more about our early education and preschool programs or find a child care center or daycare near you.

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About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
Dad losing work hours to find child care

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