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The subtle psychology behind giving parents time off to have a baby

Hardly a week goes by these days without some discussion of paid parental leave in the news. Take, for example, the Netflix announcement it was joining Richard Branson’s Virgin empire offering up to a year’s flexible paid parental leave to all staff.

Or in New Zealand, there’s the recently-redrawn-from-the-ballot Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill from Labour MP Sue Moroney, which proposes 26 weeks paid leave. And the Government is already committed to extending parental leave from 16 to 18 weeks before April 1, 2016.

But before companies rush to implement more generous leave policies as a pre-compulsion recruitment tactic, it could also be time to stop and think: How do these policies actually work in the day-to-day reality of running a business? Will staff take advantage of them?

“From an employers perspective paid parental leave can be a really good tool for attracting and retaining talented employees, but only if that policy is actually used,” says Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Auckland University. “For example, if you see a [male] senior manager taking four weeks of parental leave over a year because they have a new baby, other people will go, ‘OK, if he does it, then I’m a dad, I can do that, that’s ok.’  But if a senior manager takes one day off and is then back full-time at work, then that’s seen as [what you have to do] if you’re serious about work.

“People tend to be absent at similar rates to their colleagues,” she says, whether it’s around holidays, sick leave or parental leave.

“So you can say we have this fabulously flexible policy but if no one else is using it, then you’ll find there are very few people who will use it because it’s not really socially acceptable.”

She says some companies have a flexible policy around parental leave intended to help their staff juggle work and home after they have a baby. But if the policy isn’t clear, it actually can be frustrating rather than helpful for staff, who don’t want to risk their jobs taking more leave than is seen as acceptable by their bosses.

“If companies have a very ambiguous policy, then it very hard for staff to try to figure out what to do.”

“If companies have a very ambiguous policy, then it very hard for staff to try to figure out what to do.”

Cooper-Thomas says management needs to lead by example in terms of acceptable behaviours, in order to set the culture and behaviour of the organisation. “[Employees need to know] can I take this leave? Is it really okay? Or, if you’re a really serious career-oriented person, can I get the senior position if I do this? Because that will really affect what choices employees will make.”

“I really think that senior leadership has to role model what’s acceptable, because that’s what people will copy.”  

Take the case of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who has said she will take just two weeks maternity leave after she gives birth to twin girls, despite Yahoo offering its employees sixteen weeks paid parental leave. This could come to be seen as the norm for ambitious employees, who might otherwise prefer to spend more time with their new-borns.

From the other side, Cooper-Thomas says overly-open or flexible policies can be “quite risky for certain kinds of businesses”.

“If you’ve got a lot of people who are not as career focussed and that policy’s on the books, you could find you’ve got a lot of staff away and it’s very hard to run your business.”

Parental leave isn’t the only baby-related company policy causing waves overseas. Controversial additions to employment contracts include tech firms Facebook and Apple offering egg-freezing payment options in their contracts. And last month, IBM announced it was offering to fly breast milk around the world from employees away on business to their young babies, in an effort to recruit and retain female staff.

Dr Cooper-Thomas comments that “there’s a lot of ethical issues bound up with that. It’s interesting that we’re seeing the employer involved in the biology of our existence.”

She says women who delay starting a family because of pressures from work can experience reductions in their fertility, and egg-freezing is far from an acceptable substitute.

One study says there is only a 6.6% success rate of conception, about the same rate as with IVF treatment.

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