Better family leave policies can win over employees

Dentons Counsel Sarah Jackman

Employment law specialist Sarah Jackman discusses how gender neutral polices, fertility leave and childcare support can attract and retain employees

by Sarah Jackman, Dentons UK and Middle East LLP

Many sectors are facing skills gaps today. The combination of Brexit and the Covid pandemic has resulted in many employers losing significant numbers of their workforce and struggling to fill these positions.

It has never been more important for employers to ensure their organisations are attractive and inclusive places to work. One step that employers can take to attract new staff, as well as retain current employees, is to support their employees in achieving a good balance between home and work life.

At Dentons, we have seen an uptick in employers implementing new cutting-edge family leave policies for this reason. Offering and actively encouraging employees to use these benefits can make an organisation stand head and shoulders above competitors when looking to attract similar talent.

Gender-neutral policies for new parents

One specific market trend we have identified is a considerable move towards gender-neutral policies. For example, some companies offer the same entitlement to all new parents, regardless of whether they are the mother, father or an adoptive/surrogate parent.

Indeed, an impressive number of companies are now providing 52 weeks’ leave, with 26 weeks at full pay to all parents. Other companies are moving to base the length of leave and rate of pay on the distinction between primary and secondary caregiver, as opposed to paternity/maternity. In each case, the gender element is therefore removed.

Pregnancy loss and fertility leave

Increasingly, we have also seen employers enhancing basic family leave entitlements. Many companies now offer pregnancy loss leave, which in some cases is topped up by additional days’ leave to attend related hospital appointments.

At some UK companies, this kind of leave is available to the employee physically experiencing the loss and their partner.

Fertility leave is also increasingly being given to allow people to receive and recover from treatment, such as attending appointments for the IVF process.

Many employers already offer additional leave for parents whose baby is born prematurely. A Private Members’ Bill introduced last year, which looks set to become law in the near future, would make this a legal requirement for all employers.

Childcare support packages

Some employers offer additional annual unpaid leave to allow parents to spend more time with their children. This can be used recreationally or, for example, to deal with any emergency caring duties due to illness.

Recent research by the OECD showed that the UK has the most expensive childcare system in the world, with 35.7% of income being spent on obtaining care.

Some 62% of parents have reduced their hours because of childcare challenges, while 17% quit their jobs altogether as they were unable to secure or afford a suitable childcare solution.

It is still mostly women that bear the brunt of childcare, adding to the female skills drain and the gender pay gap. In recognition of this issue and in a bid to retain female talent, employers can consider offering childcare support packages.

Policies and benefits of this sort can be important in ensuring your workforce remains content and engaged.

Shifting gender stereotypes

However, it may not be enough to implement them. The uptake of shared parental and extended paternity leave remains low, with fears of judgment and the difficulty of shifting deeply ingrained gender stereotypes often cited as reasons.

Employers who want to enhance their benefit offering will need to consider how to instigate broader cultural change within the workforce. This could include openly celebrating those who take advantage of the benefits, reminding and encouraging people to do so, and having role models such as “fatherhood champions” that inspire fathers to take leave.

Leading by example is often key. Employees who use any of their family leave benefits can be encouraged to engage with their colleagues about their experience afterwards.

Sarah Jackman is a counsel specialising in employment law at Dentons UK and Middle East LLP, based in Scotland.

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