Shared Parental Leave (SPL) policies always seem more controversial when they fail to get effective take-up from fathers. But Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway have successfully implemented several encouraging and positive family friendly policies.
Shared parental leave has recently come under scrutiny for its lacking equality or fairness, according to economists, campaigners and various activists. Calls for meaningful reform suggest that the policy, which has attracted negative attention in the press, should be revised and replaced with something fairer.
It has been almost six years since the UK government first introduced SPL to the workforce in favour of fostering gender equality. Despite this interest in fairer family policies, the take-up remains troublingly low. There are many reasons why this shared parental leave is failing to get the right interest from working parents; for some, benefits remain un-competitive on the job market, and for others the strict criteria for the benefit means they cannot access SPL.
Since 2015, SPL has been slow to get the right support behind it. Policy makers have been reviewing Shared Parental Leave since 2017, with delayed results due to be published this year. As its anniversary comes around, Caine Bird, a technical HR expert at IRIS FMP, asks what SPL can do in the UK to push the workplace toward a fairer family benefit that enhances wellbeing and improves gender equality.
Parenting Schemes in the UK
First introduced in the UK in 2015, Shared Parental Leave allows eligible parents to split up to 50 weeks of leave following the birth of their child, following the minimum of two weeks for maternity and paternity leave respectively. This is broken down into 37 weeks of paid leave, and an additional 13 weeks of unpaid leave.
Eligibility for Shared Parental Leave
Parents who aren’t sharing responsibility for their children at birth, earning less than £120 per week, or who haven’t been employed continuously for a minimum of 26 weeks, are not eligible for Shared Parental Leave.
This directly impacts couples who are from lower income families, zero-hour contracts and self-employed workers, or millions of the UK workforce. An estimated 1.05 million zero contracts were active in 2020; a further 811,000 people are self-employed in the UK.
How Can Parental Schemes Enhance Wellbeing and Equality?
Currently, parental leave uptake is at a 10-year low. In fact, disparities in enhanced maternity and paternity pay are encouraging men, who tend to currently be the higher earners within families, to continue working instead of taking time off to look after their newborns.
In countries like Iceland parental benefits are viewed more favourably and were recently extended in January 2021, in order to encourage family and wellbeing priorities. A non-transferable shared leave quota introduced in Iceland saw fathers take 103 days for parental leave in 2008, a significant increase from 39 days in 2001. When compared globally with 41 developed countries, the UK sits in 36th place for full paid leave offered to both mothers and fathers, with Nordic countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland leading in family friendly policies.
Europe is closely behind the Nordic countries. A few major revisits to parenting leave schemes in regions like France has seen this benefit double and take-up rise, enabling fathers to rekindle parenting responsibilities. Comparatively, the UK’s schemes have been considered the least generous in Europe in terms of paid leave.
Effective policies start with families in mind. If workplace culture reforms and grows to find greater space for working parents to take meaningful paid leave to tend to homelife responsibilities, then the UK could find more interest and uptake in these kinds of initiatives. But the central problem of any parenting scheme is how it treats fathers differently often captured in paternity leave laws.
Combating gender inequality can only be achieved by providing support to all new parents, where responsibilities are shared equally with fathers. Similarly, providing suitable parental leave for adoptive parents, including LGBTQIA+, will also help to level out inequalities in the workplace. This benefit has been reformed in other countries to allow newly adopted parents and others to enjoy more paid leave of this kind.
How Can Employers Deliver Effective Policies?
By offering sufficient paternity and shared parental leave options, employers can provide peace of mind and financial stability to new families who are already going through a stressful time in their lives. As an employer, you should look beyond the market and benchmark the kinds of leave policies on offer with what your employees would like to see. Benefits are invaluable for hiring new staff and retaining key members.
Employers can deliver flexible leave options by collaborating with staff first, then monitoring and auditing how leave is used and compare this with productivity levels and business outcomes. In many countries where the likes of compressed weeks and enhanced benefits are offered, employee productivity typically peaks. Making benefits people-centric will help employers unlock their talent.