What is shared parental leave, why was it introduced, and why has uptake been so low in the UK? HR consultant Archita Misra outlines the impact of shared parental leave since it was introduced in 2015 and how employers can encourage employees to take up this type of parental leave.
The introduction of shared parental leave
Maternity/paternity/adoption Leave and pay are legal rights that employees are entitled to in order to look after a new child. Historically, maternity leave was introduced to protect working women’s employment rights, when they got pregnant or were in the process of adoption. However, statistics have shown that, in spite of strong employment legislation, women continued to face discrimination in the workplace and their careers can suffer because of maternity reasons.
Learn more: Key pregnancy and maternity rights in the workplace
In 2012, then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg announced plans to reform the law and introduce shared parental leave from 2015, wherein both parents of a new child would be able to equally share leave and pay entitlements. Shared parental leave was introduced with the intention of building a fairer society where all parents have the flexibility to share parental responsibilities.
How does shared parental leave work?
Shared parental leave gives flexibility to all parents to share responsibility for the child during the first year. The legislation is applicable in case of a new-born, adoption, or having a child through surrogacy.
Some of the key points of this law works are as below:
- Eligible parents can get up to 50 weeks of shared parental leave and 37 weeks of shared parental pay
- The amount of leave is same for more than one baby (e.g. twins)
- Shared parental leave and pay can be taken in one go or in a staggered manner in blocks of work weeks
- In order to be eligible for shared parental leave and pay entitlements, both parents must share responsibility for the child at birth. If one of the parents starts sharing responsibility of the child after they are born or after the due date of adoption, they would not be eligible for the entitlements
- Eligible partners can each take 3 separate blocks of leave and this can be taken together or at different periods
The pros and cons of shared parental leave
Shared parental leave was introduced with the intention of breaking the traditional barrier that childcare is primarily a mother’s responsibility within heterosexual couples. It was also an attempt towards creating a fairer society. The policy and legislation itself has its own merits and demerits. Let’s take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of this piece of legislation:
- Fathers get more of an opportunity to form a closer bond with their children. Traditionally, this has been a mother’s dominant responsibility within heterosexual couples. Fathers and partners who are taking up shared parental leave are the people who are bringing revolutionary change, helping build a better and fairer society for all.
- Statistics has shown that 1 in every 10 women suffer from post-natal depression within a year of giving birth. This can result from many factors, including anxiety arising after the arrival of the new child. Shared parental leave can give mothers much needed me-time and can help them to deal with post-natal anxiety and depression issues.
- The primary reason for the introduction of this legislation was to protect mothers’ employment rights owing to the arrival of new child. Shared parental leaves gives the option for both parents to make an informed decision for the betterment of both of their careers and for managing the financial impact on the family.
- Shared parental leave pay is not enough for many families to maintain financial stability, especially if a father is the higher earning member in the house. Many companies have also failed to offer enhanced paternity pay to fathers. This can bring financial burden onto families if the father opts for shared parental leave, which may impact uptake.
- The provision of shared parental leave also seems to conflict with advice from the World Health Organisation about exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months. This means the father of the child should not be sharing the parental leave within the first 6 months.
- One of the main reasons for the failure of this new legislation is the logistical nightmare it can bring for employers. Managing smaller blocks of leave is difficult for an organisation compared to managing longer extended leave periods. Employers can find it difficult to replace key employees for shorter periods of time.
What has uptake been like?
Shared parental leave was introduced with a lot of optimism to bring about fairness and equality in society. Unfortunately, the policy never got the popularity that was initially expected.
A poll conducted by researchers from the University of Birmingham did show that the uptake of the policy increased by 73% from 2015/16 (from the time it was introduced) to 2018/19. However, another article published in People Management in 2020 suggested that only 7% people used shared parental leave. Another one from the Department for Business found out that only 2% of eligible couples were using shared parental leave.
It can be inferred from the above reports that, though the uptake has increased since the policy was first introduced, it has failed to pick up steam overall.
How can employers encourage the uptake of shared parental leave?
The introduction of shared parental leave was one of the steps among many taken by the government in order to reduce gender inequalities in society and in the workplace. Below are some of my recommendations for employers to do their bit in order to make this valuable legislation more appealing to employees:
1. Communicate the benefits
Employers should try to introduce different ways of internal communication in order to advertise the benefits of the legislation, particularly by using examples and case studies to show how the system works. This will encourage eligible employees to consider the option and will also spread a positive environment in the organisation.
2. Encourage the post-pandemic culture shift
Post COVID-19, the working culture has taken a dramatic shift. In decades, for the first-time families were forced to spend months together, sharing responsibilities at home. This has bought a change in attitude amongst a lot of people. Parents’ attitudes are changing and modern-day fathers want to spend more time with their children. This is the right time to encourage fathers to share childcare responsibilities and show them the benefits of shared parental leave.
3. Offer enhanced parental pay
Employers also need to revisit their policies in terms of enhanced parental pay and should introduce enhanced pay for mothers and partners. This will encourage eligible parents to consider the option of shared parental leave without worrying about financial instability.
4. Stop the stigma
Lastly, any societal changes cannot be achieved by just bringing in new legislation. Change will arrive when employers and society take a step forward to creating a taboo free culture around parental leave. Companies need to create a culture of inclusivity that encourages the fact that parents of all genders are equally responsible and capable of caring for their new arrival.
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Written by Archita Misra
Archita Misra is an MCIPD qualified Human Resources professional with more than 12 years' experience in HR operations and strategy across different industries. She has also done an MBA in Human Resources and offers project-based consultancy services for organisations.