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Difficult to get and not widely available, paid parental leave eludes many working parents
The birth, adoption, or fostering of a child is one of the most significant — and stressful — events in a parent’s life. Children need tremendous amounts of love, care, and attention in those critical first months in a new home. It’s no surprise then that the vast majority of countries have laws guaranteeing paid time off for new parents. What is surprising is that the United States does not.
The US is not in good company. Only six nations have no national paid parental leave.
While there’s no national policy in place, there is a confusing and complicated latticework of state programs and laws. In some areas, the leave is fully paid, in others, partially or unpaid. The length of these leaves can vary too. In some states, parents are given 12 weeks, in others 8, and in a few, 5.
Another point of confusion? The definition of what qualifies one as a parent.
In general, parental leave is offered to birth parents, foster parents, and adoptive parents. But the family unit has evolved over the years. Mixed and non-traditional families are rising in number. Current legislation has been slow to keep up. All of this creates additional stress and confusion for new parents during an already stressful and confusing time.
We wanted to learn more about the struggles working parents are facing. In December 2021, BetterUp’s Khoa Le Nguyen collected data from 584 full-time working parents in the US who had at least one child under the age of 10.
Data reveals many working parents are unaware of paid parental leave or find it difficult to obtain
According to Nguyen, nearly 50% of working parents surveyed reported having no paid leave from their organization or were not aware of any paid parental leave at their organization.
While it was disappointing to learn that nearly half of working parents do not have paid leave available to them, the reality is even worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 23% of all civilian workers in the US have access to paid parental leave. 89% have access to some form of unpaid parental leave.
Our survey also revealed that these benefits do not seem to be offered, or understood, equally between genders. 58% of working mothers say their employers offer paid parental leave for them; only 45% of working fathers reported having that benefit.
Parental leave programs have typically extended more benefits to mothers than fathers. The reasonable assumption is that birth mothers need time, for physical recovery from birth and to adjust to breastfeeding if they choose. But the implicit assumption is that mothers are the primary caregivers and the only bond that matters.
This flies in the face of what we know about child development and the expectations of parents today. When both parents form an early connection to the baby, the child benefits, and so do the parents. As parental duties are shared more equitably, the practice of offering extended benefits only to mothers is outdated, discriminatory, and could be reinforcing gender inequality.
Antiquated gender roles can still influence the modern family. All across the country, many women are still expected to care for the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities, including childcare. Many working mothers feel they are forced to put their careers on hold while working fathers are free to pick up where they left off.
When companies offer women more time off than men, one of the unintended consequences can be holding women back from returning to work. Meanwhile, men "have to" return to work and advance their careers as a result.
On top of having a baby and the massive transformation that it is, just navigating the system in order to take leave is a burden for working parents. In many companies, parental leave is pieced together through a mish-mosh of state and federal laws as well as internal policies and benefit programs. Getting it wrong can mean thousands of dollars and benefits lost.
2 in 5 working parents find that preparing for parental leave, including navigating policies and planning for absence, is moderately to extremely burdensome. This comes at a time when they are already bombarded with a host of other new concerns.
On average, parents reported spending 14 hours preparing for parental leave, but the range was extreme — from 0 hours to 450 hours (almost 3 straight months of full-time work preparing to be out).
How companies can better support working parents and improve paid parental leave benefits
Time and time again, research shows that when companies empower their employees to be their whole and authentic selves, they are happier, more productive, and more creative. Supporting employees while they build their families is one of the most powerful ways they can demonstrate this.
When parents have time to care for their children during those first few critical months, research shows that their mental and emotional health improves and their children experience fewer hospitalizations and increased bonding. And when both parents can take that time off together, the health and well-being of mothers go up drastically.
Paid family leave also increases the economic stability of households. Data from California shows that paid leave lowered the risk of poverty among mothers of infants by 10%.
And it’s not just children, mothers, and fathers that benefit from paid family leave — companies benefit too. Paid leave enables more women to remain in the workforce by securing job continuity, equalizes the share of parental responsibilities in the home, and even helps close the gender pay gap by mitigating the economic and career burdens of child-rearing.
With today’s labor shortage showing no signs of letting up, it makes sense for companies to retain talent by offering parental leave benefits. HR teams should clearly explain any and all resources that are available to working parents and periodically host office hours where people can get answers to their questions.
Additionally, managers should be trained to help soon-to-be parents prepare for their time off well in advance so there’s a smooth transition as they hand off their responsibilities. This will reduce stress for everyone on the team as no one is left caught off guard by their absence.
Companies can even offer additional support for parents returning to work after parental leave in the form of professional coaching. BetterUp’s “Working Parents” coaches specialize in giving new parents the skills they need to balance the demands of the home and the office. 23% of Working Parents coaching sessions are rated as “life-changing” by members.
Raising children while maintaining a career is a tough balancing act, but organizations have the power to ease the burden by offering support like parental leave for their working mothers and fathers. The result is less stress, greater trust for everyone involved.
Sr. Insights Manager