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Published last month, the Haythornthwaite review of Armed Forces Incentivisation1 proposed radical changes to career management and reward systems. Recommendations put forward in this paper would be effective in treating one of the most contentious issues – the way military parents are managed. The current system leads to differential outcomes which feel unfair for everyone. For the Army, its workforce is its core strategic asset; the fresh perspective presented in the Haythornthwaite review should be seized upon to retain talent and maximise potential.
Conflicting expectations – a circle you can’t square
The British Army is proud of its expeditionary reach and the ability to react to new circumstances with agility. This places an expectation on serving personnel to be ready to deploy at short notice, move frequently and to routinely spend time working away from their home location. For soldiers with children, these expectations are in tension with the demands and opportunities of parenting.
On one hand, the Army has committed to redouble its deployed footprint. The Future Army Soldier paper published last year stated that from 2023 ‘more of the army will be deployed across the globe, more of the time.2
On the other hand, despite huge efforts to develop policies to support parents, exit surveys show that impact on family life is still the most cited reason for leaving. The Army does not seem ready to adapt to demographic trends and modern working practices such as divorce, families where both parents have careers, and higher levels of paternal involvement in bringing up children. The latter trend stands to have a disproportionate effect due to the high proportion of soldiers who are men.
How the current system works for no-one
Outflow is only the most easily quantifiable effect, but the actual repercussions are wider than this.
There are parents who have sacrificed time and quality of relationship with their children because a competitive career structure does not allow them sufficient flexibility. Previous Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter candidly described how ‘I’m very envious of the relationship that my wife has with the children,’ adding that he was not as present as he would have liked to be as his children grew up.3 It is natural for people who have families to want to step back temporarily, but a military career in its current form does not afford the opportunity to do so.
There are also parents who have sacrificed or limited their careers (and, perhaps, time with their children as well). The most recently published information on retention after maternity leave was in 2012.4 It showed that approximately 8% of regular Army soldiers taking maternity leave between 2007-2010 did not return to work at all, and around 30% returned but left within two years. Recent measures to support women on return from maternity leave are likely to have improved this, however anecdotal reports of outflow and career stagnation after maternity leave remain intuitively plausible.
People without children also feel unfairly treated compared to parents in their teams, particularly in terms of recognition for long hours, weekend working, deployments and exercises. The Army leverages its collaborative instincts to support parents while maintaining results and outputs. By doing so, excessive pressure is sometimes placed on those who serve, but who are not parents.
Recent progressive policies include shared parental leave and flexible working options. However, despite the fairness of the policies, there is insufficient workforce margin to implement them without difficulty. In reality, their sustainability may rely in large part on them being taken up by such a small proportion of the workforce.
Tough on Teamwork
The result is unachievable demands on serving personnel whether those are in the form of normalised arbitrary separation from family, limitation of career potential, or exhaustion and resentment. Soldiers are typified by commitment, sense of purpose and high standards; whether they are parents or not, they are likely to sacrifice their personal well-being in an effort to fulfil irreconcilable demands. This leads to long term problems with engagement
The cumulative effects of the impact on individuals described above are magnified when it comes to operating as a cohesive organisation. The Army is completely dependent on effective teamwork and cohesion. Policies which are seen to have differential effects on sub-groups stand to erode these. Measures taken to accommodate parents must be perceived as fair; they currently aren’t.
Evolved based on outdated assumptions
Current practices are generous but unsuitable. The Haythornthwaite review characterises them as an evolved rather than coherent offer, which is unduly complicated and difficult to access. Historic measures to reconcile military life with having a family often contain the tacit assumption that a military person will not be the primary carer, or even an equally involved co-parent. There is a huge investment in welfare support for a community of spouses who are traditionally seen, and sometimes still referred to, as dependents. Nurseries near Army bases are subsided, without being required to provide childcare for Army routine working hours. The continuity of education allowance pays an 80% contribution towards private boarding school fees for eligible service children. The extended holidays often deter dual-earner parents from considering this option. Some of the massive cost associated with policies designed to support parents may be increasingly ineffective and misdirected in light of modern trends within working families.
Time for intelligent design
The Haythornthwaite review proposes a radical overhaul to better resolve the tension between career progression, operational effectiveness and family life. It is overdue. The Army, as the purported most people-centric component of Defence, should lead from the front in the implementation.
The review rightly recognises ‘hygiene factors’ that need to be addressed in order to improve the Armed Forces offer, with some pertinent recommendations being about making it clearer and more easily communicated. The most powerful reforms it proposes are the ones which stand to deliver cultural acceptance that the role of being a parent can sit alongside, and indeed reinforce, the role of being a soldier.
Unorthodox ideas to prioritise – “zig zag” careers
The Haythornthwaite review suggests standardised career pathways could be scrapped to maximise flexibility over when individuals can conduct certain appointments. As is, Army career pathways place precedence on moving through certain appointments or types of appointment in a given sequence and within a particular timeframe. Haythornthwaite observes the merry-go-round of rapid posting cycles that result from the fact ‘The current template for a career is so narrowly conceived as to exclude those who do not follow a limited number of patterns of roles.’ The effect of placing these key appointments in specified time windows is that parents and potential parents may be forced into dilemmas about having to take up a particular type of appointment at exactly the time it conflicts with their most committed phases of parenting, or to miss the chance to ever take it up, with the coronal consequence of restricting their employability. If they choose the former, parents may underperform as they are forced back into competitive and taxing roles at times that do not suit them domestically, potentially undermining their career chances anyway.
The Haythornthwaite recommendation would allow parents to match the times their family requires their commitment with less demanding jobs, without completely derailing their future careers. This approach would revise the orthodoxy of gaining specific experience in a set range of roles in a tightly defined sequence.
Digitalisation work already undertaken under the Army’s Programme CASTLE to record skills accurately as they are developed offers the opportunity to stop conflating time and just being in a certain role with experience actually gained. Risk would be reduced by the fact that many people would still be inclined to pursue traditional routes anyway. The practice of forcibly interspersing staff roles and command appointments could be removed. It would be possible, contingent on performance, to move from one level of command to the next – for example, directly from Company to Regimental Command. There would be no seniority, age weighting or restrictions on promotion or career courses, simply entry standards. An officer or soldier could move down the ranks as well as up, meaning that an individual could go back and amass the right experience in a junior appointment at a time that suits them.
The Spectrum of Service
Haythornthwaite also proposes a spectrum of service, comprising all current types of engagement, with fluid movement between levels of commitment. This would maximise the opportunity to employ parents in ways which suit their domestic circumstances over key time periods. Between 2012 and 2022, the number of officers and soldiers employed on full-time reserve service terms and conditions (that is as non-regular troops) which restrict their employment to domestic roles more than doubled from 1624 to 3915.5 These jobs should be viable choices for officers and soldiers who want to restrict their separation from their families for a period of time that suits them, and then return to competitive careers later. This goes far above and beyond current flexible service options as summarised in the review: ‘Enabling parents to work part-time for a while, for example, is important. But the real power of this tool comes when it is a central part of everybody’s service and of every leader that is constructing a workforce.’
Agile incentives – targeting rewards better
Supporting the flexible career structure described above, reward, in terms of financial incentives, should be linked more directly to readiness to deploy or deployment itself. This would extend current policy, where a period of restricted deployments and reduced pay can be applied for, but goes further, suggesting a varied range of terms and conditions of service with remuneration linked to commitment levels and actual activity. Prior to implementation, a from-scratch review of pay structures should be undertaken, accurately cost-modelled based on the actual deployment and readiness standards that Defence needs. In roles which do not deploy, removal of the 14.5% x-factor could be the default – eligibility to deploy as an individual augmentee could depend on an opt-in, which comes with reinstatement of some of it.
Looking at Army Headquarters, this would free up a lot of cash and probably make the process of trawling for augmentees less painful. Across the force, achievement of training criteria could be incentivised by bonuses. Implementing an activity-based reward framework like this would improve fairness for soldiers who may have to cover additional duties and commitments due to restricted service arrangements of those working alongside them. Reasonable concessions must be made within this policy for personnel who are injured on operations or training and are not able to deploy, or achieve training standards, as a result. Care would also have to be taken not to incentivise covering up illness or injury, helping people understand that taking time to recover fully pays off in the longer term and ensuring they are robustly resourced with the medical and rehabilitative care they need on the journey.
Developing and applying policy to support families, the Army still suffers from a tendency to conflate ‘parents’ with ‘women,’ and has lagged behind the demographic trend of increasing paternal involvement in raising children. This has inured it to the full challenges of implementing suitable policies, due to the low uptake of measures by male soldiers, and the low population of female soldiers. These factors either stand to change or are already changing, meaning the Army must adapt quickly. Implementing the recommendations in the Haythornthwaite review with momentum presents the chance to do this.
Whilst the spectrum of service model will have to wait for legislative changes, it deserves vocal support. Otherwise, handing individuals maximum flexibility over their career structures is something the Army should push forward with now, building on the massive progress with the digitalisation of career management to date to make it possible. The extension of performance-based financial incentives across the force should be welcomed as an opportunity to spend money in a better way, be fairer and more operationally effective.
Asking for selfless commitment at all times might be implausible. Instead, we need to flexibility accommodate changes in the level of commitment across the duration of the time that a soldier is employed. This will set the conditions for selfless commitment when it is actually needed. As stated in the executive summary of Haythornthwaite, ‘The mantra that ‘people are our strongest asset’ is often repeated. If it really is true, investment is needed now, otherwise they may not be there to win the next fight.
What are we Haythornthwaiting for?
Cover photo by Gov.UK
Kitty is a REME Officer who has served 19 years in the Regular Army. She has commanded troops at sub-unit level. As well as the usual line-up of appointments, she has previously been CGS' Visiting Fellow at Chatham House.
- Haythornthwaite, R. 2023. Agency and Agility: Incentivising people in a new era. [Online] Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1163015/Incentivising_people_in_a_new_era_-_a_review_of_UK_Armed_Forces.pdf
- MOD. 2021. Future Soldier: Transforming the British Army. UK: APS Group. [Online] Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1037759/ADR010310-FutureSoldierGuide_30Nov.pdf Accessed 10 Jan 2022
- WARRELL, H. 2022. Lunch with the FT – General Sir Nick Carter: ‘Ukraine is a wake-up call’. Financial Times [Online]. Available: https://www.ft.com/content/be9cd012-9d46-489d-8f05-972ab2379037
- MOD 2012. UK Armed Forces Maternity Report 2012 [Online] Available:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/363921/maternity_report_2012_final.pdf Accessed 10 Jan 2022
- MOD. 2022b. Armed Forces Quarterly Personnel Statistics Oct 2022. [Online] Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/quarterly-service-personnel-statistics-index Accessed 10 Jan 2022