There’s no question the United States is far behind other countries when it comes to supporting new mothers, but the idea of maternity leave, at least, is normalized in our culture. We expect women to take time off to recover and bond with their baby after giving birth. But what about new dads or secondary caregivers?
In the US, being granted paternity leave is a rare gift, not a common benefit. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, federal law grants fathers or other secondary caregivers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the majority of fathers take off only 10 days or less, if they take any time at all. In too many American workplaces, new dads receive the unspoken message that they need to keep putting in the same hours and effort, and that taking parental leave signals a lack of professional drive and commitment.
It’s time for this to change, for reasons that go well beyond baby-bonding time. In addition to the obvious benefits of paternity leave – support for the partner, bonding time with baby, gender equity at home – it is, simply put, good for business.
Greater employee retention
An episode at a previous company where I worked really brought home for me just how valuable time off is for both the new dad, his employer and his co-workers. A principal engineer and rising star announced that he would not return to work as planned after his brief paternity leave. His wife had experienced a complicated birth, and in the midst of sleepless nights, he decided to take a less demanding role at a more established company, believing he could no longer devote so much time and energy to a high-growth start-up.
Three months later, after settling into his new life at home, he got in touch with us and shared that he regretted his choice to leave. He said he wished he’d had more time to adjust to being a dad and that his new job was mundane compared to the high-impact role he’d held with us. Had we provided a longer paternity leave, he would have gotten the time and space he needed to adjust, and the business wouldn’t have suffered the loss of a great employee.
What’s often forgotten in the dialogue of new parenthood is the role of the father who, in many cases, is right there in the trenches with mom, enduring sleepless nights, changing diapers and cooking meals. Not to mention grappling with the new responsibility of a tiny human at home. Chances are you’d be uncomfortable boarding a plane being piloted by a sleep-deprived father; we can’t expect new dads to operate at peak performance immediately after they’ve welcomed a new child. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect them to return to work without missing a beat.
Moreover, denying adequate time off leads to unhappy workers. In a recent workplace happiness report, my company found that men ranked good work/life balance as the most important driver of happiness at work. Increasingly, men (especially millennials, now in their peak child-rearing years) are demanding better work/life balance from employers and challenging inadequate paternity-leave policies. To put it bluntly, fathers are fed up.
New fathers who don’t take the full amount of leave offered – or aren’t offered enough leave by their employers – face performance challenges as a result of stress and sleep deprivation. Like the engineer at my former job, they might even take a job elsewhere. Conversely, it’s a demonstrated fact that longer parental leave positively correlates with higher employee retention. When Google extended its paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, the company saw a 50% increase in employee retention among women who’d had babies. Similarly, when you extend paternity leave, you see more men returning to work (and with a clearer head on their shoulders).
Mirroring maternity leave
While employers play a critical role in supporting work/life balance for new parents, it’s not enough just to offer time off. Employers must treat new fathers with as much careful consideration as they would a new mother.
Organizations should mirror the steps they’d take for a new mom preparing to go out on leave. Expectant dads and managers should plan ahead for absences with clear discussions of timeline, cover while the employee is out, and how they can best transition back into their role upon returning. Employers should look for proactive ways to support soon-to-be dads, too, such as by limiting access to emails and setting expectations with teams.
By creating realistic policies around paternity leave, employers signal that new fathers are not just entitled to take time off – they’re actually encouraged to do so. I find that men who take paternity leave become the biggest advocates for it when they return to work.
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Rather than view parental leave as a liability, employers have an incredible opportunity to wipe out the stigma and cultivate happy, thriving workplaces in which every working parent gets the rest and time needed to build solid family connections at home. It’s the right thing to do for dads and a good business decision too.