Co-op boss checks out for four months to help sons with their exams
THE head of the Co-op’s food division is taking a four-month ‘career break’ to help her sons through their exams.
Jo Whitfield will spend more time at home as it will be a ‘big year’ for her boys, who are sitting their A-levels.
But critics attacked the move as a result of ‘privilege’, open only to those who can afford to take unpaid leave, as many working families buckle under the cost of living crisis.
Mrs Whitfield, 54, was paid £1.4million in 2020 with a base salary of £650,000. Awarded with a CBE, she has also been tipped to take over as head of Asda.
She said: ‘I always knew that this year would be a big year with my boys undertaking key exams. We decided as a family, in order to prepare for the inevitable pressure and emotional turmoil that would involve, that
‘A luxury for the richest few’
when the time came, I would look to spend more time with them to ease the challenge.’
Co-op introduced a policy in 2013 letting all staff apply for an unpaid career break of up to 12 months, after being at the company longer than a year.
But think-tank the New Economics Foundation said worklife balance was ‘a luxury for the richest few’.
Chief economist Alfie Stirling said: ‘More than 21million people in the UK... routinely have to choose between things like replacing clothes, keeping up with bills or a trip to the dentist.
‘Taking time off work simply isn’t an option. And with basic food and energy costs accelerating further ahead of average wages, this is set to get worse before it gets better.’
The union for shop workers, Usdaw, said it was ‘difficult for low-paid workers to take a period of unpaid leave’.
One Twitter user said: ‘It’s how those at the top ensure that they and theirs stay at the top.’ Another said: ‘Just imagine if other parents, guardians and carers were able to do this. What a privilege.’
A third said while all unpaid staff have access to the option of taking a career break, not all would be able to afford it.
But a fellow chief executive, Sarah Doole, said Mrs Whitfield was ‘a role model’.
Mrs Doole, head of TV production company Red, told the BBC Mrs Whitfield’s decision showed ‘there is more to life than the salary you bring home’, adding: ‘She’s a fantastic role model for all of us.
‘Showing that you can change the system and make it work for you and your family as well as doing a great job at work. So good on her, I say.’
Co-op’s group chief executive Steve Murrells will take over the running of its 2,600 shops while she is away. Mrs Whitfield, originally from Liverpool, joined the Co-op as its retail finance boss in 2016 and took over as head of food in 2017.
‘I can take this time away reassured by the knowledge we have a strong food leadership team who will keep moving our Co-op forward,’ she said.