Let's Talk About Parental Leave

One of the most pressing issues and needs for working parents - even before the pandemic - is paid parental leave. Not maternity or paternity, but parental. It's an employee benefit that reaps rewards from recruitment to retention and everything in between. And if the past year has taught companies anything, it's that paid leave and yes, flexible work hours as well, are key to retaining working parents/caregivers.

I'll be one of the first to acknowledge that companies have been and are expanding their leave policies, adding weeks (and new services) to the time working parents are provided to care for their newborns, newly-adopted children, and for themselves. Some companies are adding this benefit to their existing offerings and others are considering the same. All good stuff.

Here's the thing...paid parental leave defines work/life integration and shows working parents that their companies/organizations understand, for example, the importance of parent/child bonding during these early days, weeks and months. This is time parents cannot recoup later and it sets the tone for what comes after it. Not to mention how it ties directly to productivity, retention and yes...recruitment as well.

So while progress is being made, conversations with working parents over the past few months are about related issues -- the challenges during and in the wake of remote schooling, childcare and teen care over the summer months, what happens in the fall if the pandemic numbers increase and schools close again, the enormous financial and mental health strain (particularly for working mothers) from the past year+ and more. And with many companies and organizations informing employees that the return to the office full-time is on the horizon - some indicating it's a few weeks away, the stress on working parents is unlike anything we've seen before.

So here are my thoughts on it...

  • Paid parental leave needs to be flexible, meaning parents need the ability to take it when it's needed vs. when companies believe it is.

  • Parents need the ability to take it in increments - e.g. if three months are provided and they choose to initially take 8 weeks, the remainder needs to be available to them as situations warrant. Life happens and parents need this flexibility.

  • Paid leave needs to be available for parents of teens (let's face it...parenting becomes far more difficult as children grow older), children with special needs, and children requiring ongoing medical treatment as well. It cannot be focused solely on infancy.

  • Paid leave must be available to foster parents, non-traditional families, those in the kinship care arena, and those caring for children during times of need and crisis.

A one-size-fits-all approach simply cannot work if supporting diversity in the workplace is broadly defined and embraced, which it truly needs to be.

Paid parental leave must be genuinely supported vs. being policies on paper. Many of the working mothers I speak with say that while their companies profess to being "family-friendly," the realities are otherwise and barriers - some hidden and some overt - exist.

While working mothers often, but not always, receive more support and encouragement to take parental leave, working fathers need the same and along with many being reluctant to request it, the laws differ by state and by company/organization as well. Criticism about their commitment to their jobs and an old-school mentality about men and their role in the lives of their children all contribute to existing barriers. Even in companies where paid parental leave is available to fathers, utilization remains an issue.

Access to and encouragement to take paid parental leave goes hand-in-hand with bias that exists including toward working parents and pregnancy discrimination. Companies that provide paid leave and flexible work hours often do so without the support of managers who frequently resist new ways to work and often lack the training and support to do so. These issues undermine the purpose of paid parental leave and make parents question the authenticity of their company being a truly family-friendly workplace.

Paid parental leave is one of the most important drivers of employee loyalty. It conveys to working mothers and fathers alike that yes...we understand your dual roles and respect and support you as employees and parents. The pandemic has taken the issue of childcare costs and accessibility alone to new levels of awareness, bringing the realities facing millions of working parents into the mainstream of business and government discussions and planning.

I'll be one of the first to say that progress has been made, with many companies and organizations taking stock of their benefits and supports for working parents. Yet for all the progress made, there are still far too many employers failing to recognize and respond to the complex needs of their employees who are working parents.

To keep working parents working, striving for "best company" status means understanding that parenting and caregiving are long-term commitments that don't fit neatly into policies on paper. Everyone has had to pivot over the past 15 months and none moreso than working mothers and fathers whose dedication to their children as well as their careers and jobs has required flexibility, time, resources, finances, and the ability to ebb and flow as life happens. And as we all know, it surely does.

#parentalleave #workingparents #worklife #parenting #work #flexibility


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