Lynne Hardman, CEO, Working Transitions
Shared Parental Leave (SPL) allows for a maximum of up to 50 weeks’ leave to be shared between parents and was designed to provide increased flexibility. Giving parents a choice about how they decide to be off work was meant to offer more gender equality and meet the rising desires for both parents to participate in the early stages of parenthood. One would assume that this was great news to new and soon to be parents, especially when you consider that in a recent Deloitte survey of 1,000 white-collar workers, 94% of respondents said they would benefit from one thing: workplace flexibility. However, take-up has been incredibly slow. Research by commercial law firm EMW showed that in 2019 only 2% of eligible couples made use of shared parental leave.
With new research from Aon claiming that 9 per cent of employers believe their employees’ expectations of work experience are changing, and a Microsoft report claims one-fifth of UK workers feel that their company does not care about their work-life balance, SPL would seem to be an excellent opportunity for organisations to address an articulated desire. To do this, businesses need to do more to promote awareness and support uptake of parental leave.
Unfortunately, workplace cultures are still playing catch up. Too many soon to be parents are still unaware of SPL, and those who do, often find themselves faced with old attitudes. According to CIPD: 56% of men currently on extended paternity leave said they felt anxious about returning to the workplace. Only 35% of dad returners felt confident they would get the same level of support from their employer as a female employee returning from maternity leave. Many don’t provide the same help and support to adopting parents or same-sex marriages. Businesses need to normalise taking time off no matter who you are or your situation and manage parental leave and the support they give both and all types of parents equally upon return.
Forward-thinking organisations focus on building an open culture that supports working parents making SPL the norm. Creating this starts with including education on SPL and any additional benefits from the moment someone is onboarded. Or, if this is a new addition to policies and procedures, make sure that everyone knows how they can take advantage of this opportunity to enhance their work-life balance during this exciting time. Beyond just awareness, organisations also need to support managers and team leaders to manage SPL takers appropriately within their teams.
Putting in plans and structures for parents to make the most of SPL will also help teams manage and support everyone’s participation and return:
- Using short term blocks or phased returns split between parents allows the parent who has been away longer to boost their confidence and take smaller steps into the new work and home balance. And for those new to taking time off, this balance feels less jarring. The same CPID report found that nearly three-quarters of men (73 per cent) felt a stigma attached to them taking extended paternity leave. Where cultures are slower to change, these smaller sprints might also be beneficial in helping everyone feel successful.
- Coaching plays a huge part in helping the process be much more successful. Very few, if anyone, is prepared for the impact a new child or children has on their current life and need help transitioning into new patterns and managing expectations. Offering both parents the chance to create a back-to-work plan and provide a safe place to address self-esteem will boost resilience and support the life/work balance that has been thrown into the air helps staff return with confidence.
- Outside of coaching, providing structure for managers and their team members participating in SPL to conduct regular review and objective setting meetings will also help with career plans enabling both sides to understand what is best and what is needed. The more open, the less risk and surprises for everyone.
- And finally, creating networking or support groups that provide the space and time for people to talk about the challenges they are facing and how they feel about the process without judgement. If people are worried about feeling judged or seen as weak by their colleagues who are not in the same process, it can be unsettling. Having a safe space to talk with those going through or who have gone through the process with advice and a friendly understanding ear can be game changing for those feeling isolated or alone.
Despite the potential benefits that extended paternity leave could provide to fathers, children and businesses, including improvements to employee engagement, retention and productivity, SPL has had limited adoption. As our needs for flexibility have, in many cases, forever changed post-pandemic, it’s time for organisations to revisit this as an opportunity to provide flexibility and support for all parents.