When it comes to taking a paid leave to care for oneself or a family member, our country and our workplaces are missing the proverbial boat. Nationally, the United States is one of the only developed countries to not mandate paid time off for medical needs or having a child. People who do take paid time off either do so through one of the 13 states or District of Columbia that have a paid family leave program, or they use what their employer has to offer.
And many employers don’t realize what an opportunity this is for them. There are so few major “inflection points” in our careers: moments when an employee can decide to double down on a job they love or start walking out the door, looking for other options. None are quite as significant as when an employee takes leave from their job to have a baby.
“It is a true love ’em or leave ’em moment,” said Sarah Olin, co-founder and CEO of LUMO, a company dedicated to supporting working professionals’ transition to working parenthood. “Employees either have a manager who is empathetic and supports their leave journey or they have a manager who relates to parental leave as a burden. So much is riding on how managers show up and respond to that moment.”
So, what differentiates the two experiences between wanting to quit a job or stay forever after taking caregiving leave? Some of this comes down to what the company offers, or the culture, or the transparency and visibility of the policy, along with an on-ramp to bring employees back at a speed that matches their readiness. Other aspects might include how accessible child care is for an employee—if they are in a position to access affordable, quality child care that works with their schedule—or if they are part of the half of the country considered “a child care desert” where few quality options exist.
Creating a meaningful caregiving leave at work was the focus at the MH WorkLife “Care At Work Summit NYC,” when 200 people met in October in Industry City, Brooklyn for that conversation. It was a shifting of narratives, and conventional wisdom about caregiving and work was turned on its head. For example, rather than shun workers who are anything less than the “ideal worker” (young, overworked and without any responsibilities at home), consider that people with caregiving responsibilities at home make for better employees. Taking time off work makes for a more productive team, and benefits around leave and flexibility can be worth more to employees than compensation.
“Eighty percent of my team are women and sixty percent of my team are mothers,” said Jeanelle Teves, the general manager for Bugaboo in North America. Teves has prioritized her team’s caregiving responsibilities, including extended parental leave benefits, flexible return-to-work plans and wellness Fridays. The result is that she has one of the happiest teams in the company with the lowest turnover on their internal workplace surveys.
Teves, a mother of two young children herself, knows that before her fully remote team logs on for their first call of the day, they’ve been up for hours, prepping lunches and snacks and shuttling kids out the door. “They come in ready to work,” she explained. “And they value having that flexibility and support, and it’s an equal or higher priority than compensation.”
Progress at the state level has helped fuel changing expectations around paid leave, but so do generational shifts. More men and women expect leave to be part of a good company’s standard package. Cocoon, a company that provides employee leave software, shared that the companies who used their service and offered paid parental leave did so at an average of 16 weeks for birthing parents and 12 weeks for non-birthing parents, though Lauren Dai, the co-founder and COO, acknowledged they were a niche slice of the economy.
Dai also noticed the rise in “compassionate leave” as a type of paid leave an employee can take without specifying their specific need. This has been of particular concern since the Supreme Court Dobbs decision further limited a woman’s reproductive rights and forces many women to travel for basic health care needs. “A lot of these big moments that people take leave for are happening in a private space, and the employer doesn’t need to know about it,” said Dai.
MHWorkLife, too, has undergone a shift in the way they communicate and present caregiving leave. Formerly called Mother Honestly, the founder Blessing Adesiyan, explained that the decision to change the name was to be less specific to mothers and have a wider audience appeal.
“The minute you mention something that is gender-based, business leaders immediately tune you out,” she said. “It is hard to get to the business case if people cannot get past something that they consider to be a lobby for a minority group of folks, even though companies too often underestimate the economic power of women.”
While more paid leave plans are taking into account how and why men need to be included, it’s often the mothers who have built many of these programs and remain the driving force behind it. “We are a company built by mothers, but we are not presenting ourselves as another mom solution,” she said.
But employer-based solutions still fall short of covering the wide share of the working population that does not qualify for paid caregiving leave, either through their work or through their state.
“Use your power as a business leader to advocate for universal policies,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director/CEO and co-founder of MomsRising who spoke at the Summit.
“Of course, we want policies in your workplace to be spectacular. But we can’t do it one business at a time. Businesses should be advocating for stabilizing the child care industry and creating a federal paid family leave plan.”
She urged audience members to call their members of Congress and speak in favor of these policies, and to be persistent in their efforts. “You have no idea how powerful your voices are and they are very needed.”