Why focusing on the child is the best way to offer parental leave

parental leave work
Girard Dorney


written on December 6, 2017

In Finland, a child’s health and happiness is culturally prioritised over parental rights – with amazing outcomes. Should companies take a similar line about their employees’ children, or is that a bridge too far?

For some companies, generous paid parental leave and flexible work are benefits used to entice top recruits who either have families or are planning on starting one. In others, they’re seen as essential to staff retention. But perhaps organisations should be following the lead of Finland, and framing all parental benefits as crucial for their employees’ children.

Finland is the only country where fathers see their children more than mothers (to the tune of eight more minutes a day). As detailed in an article on The Guardian, a pregnant Finnish woman gets between 11-15 medical visits for free and a very low delivery cost. Fathers are given nine weeks of paternity leave at 70% of their salary, and all parents are provided a “baby box” containing things such as toiletries, a mattress, a sleeping bag, and playsuits (they can also opt for €140 instead, but only five per cent of people do, as it’s worth less than the box).

The Scandinavian nation is ranked fifth in the World Happiness Report, and its approach to parental rights at work differs from many countries by focusing on the health and happiness of the child rather than the rights of parents. It’s a simple difference, but one that encourages an entirely different cultural attitude.

In contrast, while Australia’s mandated parental leave scheme is better than many countries, it’s long been a negotiation between what the nation (and employers) can afford and what parents need. Even the coming changes to the child care rebate have been framed as providing economic relief to families, rather than as a boon for early childhood health and education.

This national culture is unlikely to change anytime soon, but can HR present a case to its organisation that focusing on their employees children ultimately benefits the business?

The parent-first philosophy

It might seem counterintuitive – even a bit loopy – for a company to pay much heed to their employees’ children. If anything, children would seem to guarantee an interruption of an employee’s ability to help the bottom-line.

Perhaps the most interesting example of the current philosophy is offering women an “egg-freezing” perk, where the company pays for the ability to delay pregnancy to a more convenient time in the employee’s life/career. It’s the latest trend in Silicon Valley, and a clinic has recently opened in Australia.

If offered alongside generous parental leave and childcare options, egg-freezing could be seen as simply another option for employees. But as explained in this US National Institute of Health paper, the danger is if the perk becomes an implicit request for women to prioritise work.

The number of hurdles the company has to clear to make sure employees know the company is acting in good faith (providing a host of other parental benefits, making sure women understand it’s just an option, etc) might be impossible, which is why the paper concludes: “Regardless of companies’ possible good intentions, women’s reproductive autonomy is not well served by offering them company-sponsored AGE banking.”

The case for focusing on children

As HRM wrote about earlier this year, there is one company that has 100 per cent retention of mothers in its home office – the US-based outdoor apparel company Patagonia. They offer onsite childcare, a travelling nanny for parents going on a work trip, and 16 weeks of paid leave. While coming at a cost, that retention rate is astonishing.

Is it possible to harness that same philosophy without the same kind of outlay? Well, even just stating that the company cares about the family and offering appropriate flexibility improves engagement.

In an HRM interview, CEO of Kronos, Aron Ain said: “All the time I tell people who work at Kronos that if the most important thing in their life is Kronos, they’ve got their priorities mixed up. I tell them that is just silly. The most important thing in their life should be their family.”

As detailed in the article, Ain has policies that support this attitude, and the data to backup the high regard his employees have for both the company and him as CEO. Again, the difference is simple. Instead of offering generous parental leave and flexibility, you emphasise it and make it a pillar of your company’s culture.

The great thing about flexibility is it’s something most organisations can offer, and there’s evidence that there’s no perk more valued by staff. The lack of it has been linked to attrition, and the presence of it linked to increased productivity and a boost to recruitment.

Have an HR question about parental leave or flexible work practices? Access AHRI:ASSIST resources for HR guidelines, checklists and policy templates on different HR topics. Exclusive to AHRI members. 

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One thought on “Why focusing on the child is the best way to offer parental leave

  1. These are all wonderful and altruistic ideas but need to be put in context. Finland has a population of less than 6 million with very low population increase. This is not hard to fund from government revenues, where the Finnish government takes on average 51.6% of salary as tax revenue, hence can return money to the Finnish people by way of social services. Additionally, Finland economy is robust in services and manufacturing so the revenue base is good as are job opportunities for the educated. Again this principle is applied around the numerous reports on Finland’s education system and how great it is, but it is easier to achieve and fund change with a smaller group of ethically similar people.
    To introduce something like this in Australia would be a massive economic, cultural and political shift. With prime ministers struggling to say in their role for a full term of government let alone the political party of the day they are not going to take on any long-term challenges or change. Think about the Gonski report into education, which is now six years old and it has been “on the table” for at least 4 prime ministers, 2 political parties let alone numerous changes to the original recommendations
    Additionally, legislating to get employers to take on these benefits and proactive thinking would be difficult if not impossible. There are over 250,000 small and medium businesses in Australia many who struggle to stay afloat and survive constant economic and policy changes.
    Yes, the large corporates could afford to do this, but they won’t if they don’t have to, it’s not the sort of think a political party will legislate.
    The examples you gave are excellent and reflect a very few successful companies with good profits, outstanding leadership and great retention and employee care practices.
    Practically speaking it is not possible for this to become the norm but by all means as influencers let’s chipping away where we can. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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