Should employers do more to encourage take up of shared parental leave?

shared parental

Need to know:

  • An organisation’s culture can influence whether parents feel comfortable requesting shared parental leave.
  • Enhancing shared parental pay above the statutory minimum can enable parents to align decisions around childcare and parental leave more to family needs rather than this automatically falling to the parent whose employer offers better-paid leave.
  • Case studies can be a good communications tool because they can showcase the different ways in which employees can take up shared parental leave.

In February 2018, the government launched its Share the joy advertising campaign in a bid to encourage more of the 285,000 eligible parents in the UK to take up shared parental leave. When it was implemented in 2015, the government estimated as part of its initial impact assessment that take up of shared parental leave would be between 2% and 8% in the first three years. Although the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is preparing to evaluate this in an assessment is is conducting this year, it has predicted that the analysis will match the original forecasting. Its final report on the evaluation of shared parental leave is due to be published in spring 2019.

So, what is preventing expectant parents, in particular fathers, from utilising shared parental leave and how can employers better demonstrate its benefits?

How is shared parental leave different?
Shared parental leave was introduced in 2015 as an alternative to traditional maternity and paternity leave. It was designed to offer parents more choice in terms of their childcare options within the first year of their child’s life by enabling eligible mothers and fathers to share up to 50 weeks’ leave.

Eligible parents, who have worked continuously for the same employer for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before their due date or adoption date, can structure their shared parental leave to suit their family’s needs. For example, parents can take time off separately or they can take leave at the same time for up to six months. Leave can be taken as three discontinuous blocks or as a continuous period.

To be eligible for shared parental leave, employees must also remain with the same employer for the duration of their leave. Furthermore, for the 66 weeks prior to the week the employee’s baby is due, the employee’s partner must have been working for at least 26 weeks as an employee, worker or self-employed person and have earned at least ÂŁ390 in total across 13 of the 66 weeks.

As a minimum, parents who take up shared parental leave are also able to share up to 37 weeks of statutory shared parental pay, which equates to the lower of ÂŁ140.98 a week or 90% of an employee’s average weekly earnings.

Adrian Lewis, commercial director at absence management software organisation Activ Absence, says: “Shared parental leave hasn’t been taken up as everyone thought it would do, so it’s time for reflection now to look at what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and to put some reform in place in order to help make it work.”

Shifting organisational culture
According to research by TSB, published in February 2018, 49% of fathers believe there is a societal stigma attached to taking shared parental leave and that it is not considered the normal course of action for men. Where employers want to see more of their male staff taking up shared parental leave, an organisation’s culture should embrace family-friendly policies and attitudes across all levels of the business. Mandy Garner, editor at Workingmums.co.uk, says: “[There] has to be a strong message coming from the employer that [it] supports shared parental leave, that [it is] promoting it in a positive way so that people can see that it’s not going to have an impact on their career [and] that it is being encouraged and supported by the employer.”

One way employers can instigate this cultural shift is by facilitating job shares, flexible-working arrangements and part-time working opportunities for both male and female employees. Ensuring such arrangements are accessible and available for all can give staff the confidence to tailor their work-life balance and childcare without fearing potential stigma or peer pressure. This can help to create a family-friendly, inclusive work environment that embraces parents being able to decide how they want to share care.

Julia Waltham, head of policy and communications at Working Families, says: “Looking at recruiting all jobs flexibly would be a big step towards bringing about the culture change that we feel is needed to create fertile ground for people to take and use [shared parental leave]. It’s about creating a broader cultural shift within workplaces that encourages shared care in the longer term.”

The influence of managers
An organisation’s managers and leadership team have a key role to play in transforming organisational culture so that expectant fathers feel confident in requesting shared parental leave.

Employers should, therefore, ensure they communicate to managers their supportive stance on shared parental leave,as well as the overall benefits of why it can be advantageous for both employees and the business. Adrienne Burgess, joint chief executive officer and head of research at The Fatherhood Institute, says: “[Shared parental leave] helps set a level playing field for mums, it helps with the gender pay gap, it helps fathers be closer to their children and less [stressed], and it makes [fathers] more productive in the end when they come back [to work]. So, if the organisation [is] able to list the benefits, that’s for the employees but it’s also for the managers.”

In addition, senior leaders can influence organisational culture by acting as positive role models and sharing their personal case studies if they have taken up shared parental leave. “One of the big issues is that dads are worried about the impact on their career of taking long periods of leave,” says Workingmums.co.uk’s Garner. “So, [have] senior managers talk about it openly and actually really advocating it themselves and [speaking] about it.”

Lewis adds: “Reform in the organisation has got to come from the top down so people know it’s been decided at the highest level.”

Tackling financial barriers
Even if an organisation’s culture and leaders are primed to embrace working fathers, a family’s personal finances can still impact fathers’ decisions to take up shared parental leave. For example, 37% of fathers would not take up shared parental leave because they could not afford to, according to research by Working Families published in April 2017.

Employers that enhance shared parental leave pay, typically in line with their enhanced maternity pay, may find this encourages fathers to take shared parental leave by it making it a more affordable option. “As soon as [employers] start to pay it properly, more fathers will take it,” says Burgess.

Working Families’ Waltham adds: “[Shared parental leave] needs to make financial sense for families and that’s where employers have a really big role. We’d encourage them to see enhancing shared parental pay as a real investment in [employees that affords] families more choice in the way they share care.”

Reducing complexity
Although shared parental leave came into effect three years ago, in-house organisational systems, such as pay processes, can still hamper how easy it is for employees to take shared parental leave.  “[Employers] might need to have a different salary code to cope with this,” says The Fatherhood Institute’s Burgess. “An employer has to get on top of it and get [its] systems straight.”

Employers can also sometimes struggle to coordinate notification periods and timings for respective parents wishing to take shared parental leave, adds Workingmums.co.uk’s Garner. “There can be a lot of paperwork, often employers run different schemes, the notification period is very complex and there’s other issues with coordinated timings, so somehow streamlining the whole process is really important,” she explains.

The more cases of shared parental leave employers deal with, however, the more efficient these processes will become, adds Garner. “They’ll learn as they go along,” she says.

Effective communications
Another potential barrier to take up of shared parental leave is that not many expectant parents actually know about it, says Burgess. This is reinforced by the aforementioned TSB research, which found that 37% of respondents had not heard of shared parental leave.

Raising awareness of shared parental leave and organisations’ policies, therefore, is crucial. This can be achieved using communications during the recruitment process, at new starter inductions, at manager inductions and via the organisation’s intranet or website. Physical or email newsletters can also help remind employees about shared parental leave, while managers and team leaders can cascade information to staff using one-to-one meetings or departmental training sessions. “[Employers] have to keep repeating it because it’s a revolving door; people come in and out of the [organisation],” says Burgess. “It needs to be easily accessible.”

Shared parental leave should also be communicated to employees in line with an organisation’s maternity and paternity policies as well as alongside its flexible-working opportunities. “[Employees] see it as a suite of offers,” adds Burgess. “It’s very clear and the [organisation] is endorsing [family-friendly policies]. [The employer should] make it as visible as it can externally and internally.”

Case studies are a particularly good communications tool, because these can clearly demonstrate the ways in which employees’ colleagues are taking shared parental leave. “[Where] the legislation is so complicated itself, actually seeing real people and what they’ve done, really helps when [employees are] thinking about how [they] are going to take it,” says Garner.

Support for returning fathers
Best-practice examples for ways in which employers can support fathers on their return from shared parental leave can be taken from what leading family-friendly organisations offer to returning mothers, says Garner. This includes return-to-work programmes or coaching sessions, for example. Employers should also communicate opportunities for continuing career progression and development, to mitigate any fears employees may have about how an extended leave of absence could impact their career, adds Waltham.

It is also important that employers recognise the home stressors that may influence a new father’s life once he returns to work, says Burgess. For example, many new fathers suffer from exhaustion or they may be trying to support their partner through conditions such as post-natal depression. “[Employers] can make the workplace help fit this father who is now going through one of the hugest life changes,” she says.

Equally, employers need to focus on supporting fathers before they embark on a period of shared parental leave, because typically cover for their role may not be arranged in the same way as maternity cover may be broached for a female employee, says Burgess.  “What the manager has to do is work out with the father what his work commitments are and how these are going to be met while he’s out of the workforce,” she explains. “That’s absolutely crucial for fathers because what tends to happen is there’s no backfill and then when they come back, it’s chaos. And they’re worrying about it when they’re away.”

Keeping-in-touch days or invitations to business events or work-related social occasions can also help fathers stay attuned to what is happening at work, should they wish to do so.

Employers that actively take steps to improve take up of shared parental leaves should consider monitoring take up levels in order to compare their figures year-on-year, says Burgess. This then enables employers to track whether their efforts to improve take up are successful or whether they need to make further changes.

As Waltham concludes: “Shared parental leave is a really big opportunity that employers can use and, if they use it well, it could really start to make that cultural shift within organisations. But it needs to be underpinned by the availability of more flexible and part-time jobs for men and women so fathers can continue to take an active role in their child’s life.”