American workers need more leave to care for their families. From politicians racing to introduce bipartisan bills to companies advertising their unique benefits, employers, policymakers, and scholars are engaged in a heated debate over how to integrate family leave into the American work environment.
Yet despite being called “family” leave, many still understand leave policies to primarily benefit young parents—specifically, young mothers. For example, in a TIME article from May 2019, the headline reads, “Millions of Americans Could Finally Get Paid Family Leave…”. But the article focuses on young parents--in particular, mothers who need to balance between caring for their infants, themselves, and getting back to work.
The titles of several recent Congressional proposals are even more explicit. Consider the “New Parents Act” co-sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, and the “Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment” or the CRADLE Act by Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee. Photos that accompany articles on family leave are often images of babies. Even the well-known piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter “Why Women Can’t Have It All” is prefaced with a picture of an adorable toddler sitting in (we can assume) her mother’s briefcase.
Having a child is certainly one common reason for needing paid leave. However, the need for leave extends far beyond caring for infants. Too much focus on early parenthood and, in particular, early motherhood, risks excluding other segments of the working population who also need these policies. It also reinforces the idea that only women who plan on having children will benefit from paid leave programs, which could damage support for family leave in the long run.
For starters, parenting is a lifelong commitment, and the responsibilities surrounding childcare ebb and flow as the child (and the parent) age and grow. My research demonstrates that work-family conflict does not only occur during the transition to being a new parent. In a study of working parents, I find that parents also experience an increase in friction between work and family as children enter school. New issues--like negotiating school schedules and new responsibilities—can require time from parents at any time.
Similarly, while early career professionals were concerned with parental leaves, they are also, concerned with working schedules that allow them to manage daycare pickup schedules, pick up their children if they were sick or if daycare was closed, or attend other school-related events such as parent-teacher conferences. These events are less predictable and occur after parental leave traditionally ends. In fact, in the Slaughter piece above, the main source of work-family conflict was when her middle-school-aged son encountered multiple disciplinary issues at school and needed parental support.
While flexible schedules or other non-leave benefits, can help with some of these situations, many parents already operate on thin time resources. Any sudden event, like a sick child or daycare closure, puts parents in a bind. Comprehensive family leave empowers parents with an important resource to manage their family’s lives. It allows them to mindfully address issues at both work and home, making them better parents but also better workers.
In addition, many workers are not parents, but still have caregiving responsibilities. 1 in 6 Americans provide unpaid care to a chronically ill parent or person with disabilities, and this number will increase as the proportion of the population over the age of 65 is expected to double in the next forty years. This means that even if a worker does not have a child, they are likely to have significant caregiving responsibilities helping loved ones manage chronic disease or the aging process.
An inclusive paid leave policy should allow workers to take time off to care for aging parents, siblings, extended families, and even close family friends. These acts of caregiving are just as important as raising a child, and deserve as much recognition and support.
Finally, framing issues of paid leave around maternity stigmatizes mothers as the only workers in need of help. It adds fuel to the culture war that codes leave-taking as a benefit that everyone pays into, but only working mothers need. What about the man who needs time off to move his aging father into a retirement home, or the woman who needs to support her sister with a chronic disability through a health crisis? When we recognize how broad the potential beneficiaries of paid leave are, we take away the stigma of taking leave. We recognize it not as asking for help, but as a critical component of a supportive, humane workplace.
Comprehensive family leave policies are not new, but few companies offer truly comprehensive leave benefits. A 2018 study found that, while many companies offered some form of parental leave, few offered additional family leave. Notable exceptions include Deloitte, which on top of offering 8 weeks of childbirth recovery leave and 16 weeks of parental leave, also offers an additional 16 weeks of family caregiving leave. In a similar direction, though not nearly as generous, are IBM (5 days for family emergencies), H&M (1 week), and Microsoft (4 weeks). However, these companies are more the exception. The majority of companies on the list offer no family leave at all.
From the perspective of productivity, recruitment and retention, this is a huge oversight. A study of companies in California, which implemented a state-wide family leave policy in 2004, found neutral to positive benefits of family leave for company productivity, profitability, and employee morale. A recent report finds that companies are exploring comprehensive family leave policies in order to maintain an edge in retention and recruiting. And, while there may be concerns that offering additional leave may lead to abuse of such benefits, workers are often not taking leave even when they need to. Research shows that fears of salary or advancement loss, denial of approval by employers, and not wanting colleagues to take on more work prevent workers who want to take leave from taking adequate amounts. In the same study of California businesses, over 90 percent of organizations surveyed reported “no abuse” of the policy.
Focusing on comprehensive family leave doesn’t mean ignoring parental leave. Paid maternity leave is critical for making progress on gender equity. Becoming a parent is a life-changing event and it should be supported. Research has shown how becoming a parent is a key turning point for outcomes like gender parity in the labor market and in the household. Offering paid parental leave is a crucial start to building a comprehensive paid leave program.
But paid family leave is not only about gender. It’s about workplaces acknowledging that employees’ personal lives matter. Making leave policies as inclusive and comprehensive as possible gives them its best chance at success.
How can you make your company leave policy more inclusive?
- Aim to offer a comprehensive family leave policy, which includes parental (not separate maternal or paternal) leave and also enables employees to take time for other family caregiving responsibilities.
- Review the images on your benefits website. Are you reinforcing the idea that only certain demographics need leave? For example, do you only have images of women and infants? Diversify the images and the anecdotes on benefits education websites to ensure they are sending a message of inclusion.
- Similarly, incorporate diverse examples into benefits sessions. Vary the gender, age and family caregiving situation when explaining to employees how to use leave benefits.
- To change the messaging around family leave, invest in educating those in the company most responsible for disseminating benefits information. This means HR, but also managers, who are often the front-line source of information. This can cultivate a culture of acceptance and inclusion around family caregiving.
- Lead by example. If you are a leader in your corporation, take family leave when you need it. Most importantly, do it publicly and without apology. No policy will succeed until employees see leaders modeling the behavior.