It’s A No Brainer: The Power Of Flexible Parental Leave

d&i strategies fatherhood managing working parents motherhood return to work smart and flexible working work life harmony working parents Sep 20, 2018

Paid parental leave is essential for children, important for families, and good for business. Parental support from the organisations they work for is something that prospective parents want, because they know intuitively that spending more time with each other and with their newborn is going to be the best thing for their family. For all concerned, flexible paid extended and shared parental leave is a no-brainer. Here’s why...

Benefits For The Company

From a business perspective, it’s logical that improving the happiness and mental health of your staff increases productivity and helps you to retain your best talent. In many organisations, family leave worth the investmnt as they see an increase in engagement, productivity and talent retention. hen Google extended its paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, it saw a 50% increase in employee retention among women who had babies.

In contrast, insensitivity and lack of “civil organisational behaviour” - such as showing little support for new parents - can, according to research by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Professor, Christine Porath, “cause employees to lose focus, be less engaged, and have health problems,” none of which is good for individuals or organisations.

Other reports suggest that shared parental leave can potentially bridge the gender pay gap, whilst  also addressing diversity and inclusion concerns, by challenging persistent stereotypes surrounding male and female parental roles.

Whilst men may be open to the idea of taking shared parental leave, there are still genuine fears that their employers will perceive them negatively and as less committed than their counterparts. Eliminating any stigma, whether related to mental health or men caring for their children, could only be seen as a benefit.

According to parents Tom and Nikki Snelgrove, they split shared parental leave 50/50, overlapping a large part of it so they could spend time together. Neither claimed to have real fears around taking the option due to the support of their employers and both said it hasn’t had repercussion on their careers either.

During that time, both were able to attend work events and training days and remain in touch with things on the ground. A great corporate culture allowed Tom to relay his experience to his wider work community, which has seen other colleagues, senior leadership included, follow suite.

The Gates Foundation reported that when one employee steps away to spend time with their growing family, another has the chance to step up or over in their work at the foundation. That person is learning something phenomenal from the chance to backfill for a colleague, and that contributes to his or her career. Many of those employees have had additional opportunities at the foundation as a result of their backfill contributions.

Case Study: The Gates Foundation

In a bid to be aligned with what they stand for outside and what the experience is like to work on the inside, The Gates Foundation made the first year of life a priority in their programmatic work. This includes the foundation’s:

  • Maternal, Newborn & Child Health work to help healthy mothers deliver healthy children and promote resilience among women and children, and the
  • Gender Equality strategy, which focuses on economic empowerment for women and girls through financial and market inclusion.

They began by asking themselves: “What would parental leave look like if we designed it around a commitment to healthier babies, strong and resilient families, and parents who are able to thrive personally and professionally?” The answer was to establish a parental leave program that offers 52 weeks of paid time off for mothers and fathers in the first year of a child’s birth or adoption.

The foundation has since worked with managers and employees from a cross-section of teams and roles to orchestrate creative solutions to ensure the most essential work is handled skilfully while parents are on leave. They listened to diverse voices, addressed a range of needs, and developed a variety of solutions. Some of the lessons learned include:

  • Include the right people, early on, every time. In working with specific leave situations, ensure appropriate colleagues are involved early. Different perspectives are needed to define the work, identify what is required of the backfill candidate, and to provide advice on what is possible, given program guidelines. Involving the right people early on also helps in the smooth transition of work when the employee’s leave begins.
  • Empower managers and support employees. It’s important to balance empowering, light-touch processes with ensuring managers and colleagues feel supported and accountable to achieve a solution. We found managers wanted guidance on how to hold conversations with employees who are planning to take leave and with those who were interested in backfilling. We created simple materials to help managers prepare for these conversations.
  • Create well-defined processes and communication around internal movement. Managers and employees need clear guidance about backfill processes and expectations. The HR teams managing benefits, talent, and recruiting need to coordinate and communicate as one—and provide greater transparency about the internal talent pool across the organization.

View the full case study here.

Benefits For The Family

There is no question that mothers, fathers, and children benefit from paid extended and shared parental leave. That’s what it’s all about - healthier and more secure babies, happier parents who are able to thrive professionally and at home, and strong family units.

Not only has paid parental leave been linked to higher birth weights and lower rates of infant mortality, mothers who get paid leave breastfeed more and for longer too, which is one of the best ways to protect the health of a newborn.

This is to say nothing of the long-term emotional health of both parents and children who are able to form a strong attachment from birth. When fathers take leave, they participate more in early child rearing, and that level of engagement continues after the leave ends. According to, evidence also shows that mothers who take leave are more likely to get raises in the year following their leave - 54% more likely in fact!

Then there’s the fact that the first year of life is packed full of milestones and huge leaps in child development. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during a baby’s first year of life they learn to focus their vision and are at the very earliest stages of language development. “The way parents cuddle, hold, and play with their baby will set the basis for how they will interact with them and others,” the CDC says.

Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said in Time Magazine: “Babies need a sense of safety, predictability and responsiveness. We know from research that all areas of development—whether it’s cognitive development, emotional wellbeing, or social development—has its foundation in this secure relationship. We do a lousy job as a society supporting parents after the birth of their babies. It’s unconscionable with all the deep scientific understanding we have now. It makes no sense to not offer more of that flexibility and support.”

Case Study: Sarah Shearman

In The Financial Times, Mother Sarah Shearman writes about her experience of shared parental leave. She says: “On the first day of my husband’s leave, as he strapped our son into a sling and trundled off to a baby massage class, leaving me alone with my laptop, I was surprised at how easily I slipped back into work. Tackling an overloaded inbox was Zen-like compared with keeping a young baby fed and happy all day. I was secretly pleased when my husband admitted childcare was harder than he expected, however enjoyable.”

In addition to completing assignments, I had as many meetings as possible to line up work for when I returned full time. The feeds meant I could not spend more than two hours away from my son, so my husband would accompany us into central London and sit in a nearby café with the baby. This arrangement would have been less feasible if I had been permanently office-based.

We had initially envisaged I would make up for the sacrificed benefit by working. It did work out financially, and maintaining my contacts was worth it.

Now I am making new childcare arrangements so I can return to work. Having shared my leave, I feel more confident doing so; my son is content to be with other people, which I put down to the time he spent with his father.”

In Summary

At Thriving Talent, we have a goal to empower 1 million parents by 2020. When organisations ask us, what are the best enablers to retain and engage talent, we advise them that offering parental leave for both parents is critical, plus a culture where leaders visually and vocally leverage flexible working policies!

There is no doubt about it in our mind. Paid shared and extended parental leave is a win-win. When businesses start competing for the best employees by improving parental leave policies, the whole of society benefits.

As the case studies and reports demonstrate, the transition to parenthood is a significant, life-changing event which forces many dual career families to look closely at their organisations and ask themselves, “is this where I want to be, if we have a family? How easy will it be to have a career and a caring role if I stay here?”. The culture of your organisation and its policies and practices will influence (positively or negatively) the decision to stay. Your Line Managers play a critical role in supporting this period of change, so empower your Managers with attractive policies and train them on what to pay attention to, so they don’t feel the stress!

If you would like to discuss this further, share your current challenges and explore what will help you engage and retain your working population of carers (approximately >65% of the workforce),  please email [email protected].

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