What does a parental leave policy look like in 2021? HRM asked an expert about what could be included in a progressive parental leave policy.
It has been a decade since the introduction of the Paid Parental Leave scheme, but according to Parents at Work CEO, Emma Walsh, Australia still lags behind other countries when it comes to providing adequate leave for new parents.
Thankfully, she says, many Australian organisations are trying to be more progressive in their approach to parental leave.
“One of the things that’s worked in [working parents] favour around COVID is that caring responsibilities have been elevated. They’re no longer invisible.”
“I think we’re on the precipice of an enormous shift around the way we support families in the workplace.”
Walsh says organisations can kick start this shift by reexamining their parental leave policies. She told HRM six features that she believes should be included in a progressive parental leave policy.
1. Challenge the labels
Many organisations have already started removing gendered terms from parental leave policies – for example, the change from ‘maternity leave’ to ‘parental leave’.
There has also been an uptake of the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carers in many organisations to account for all genders and the role people play in their newborn’s life. But Walsh believes it’s time to abolish these terms all together.
Walsh says moving to a single, all-encompassing policy could actually simplify things for HR. For example, organisations that have separate primary and secondary carer policies could face a complicated situation if the employee switches from one to the other.
“Let’s say a new father takes leave as a ‘secondary’ carer then his partner decides to return to work full time, making him the ‘primary’ carer. Does the primary carer policy now kick in?”
Even just figuring out if a new parent is considered a primary or secondary carer can cause headaches for HR. She presents the following hypothetical as an example:
Susan takes 14 weeks of leave as per her organisation’s primary carer leave policy. Her husband, Wayne, works for a different organisation. His employer has removed primary and secondary labels from its parental leave policy. Because of this Wayne can also take 14 weeks leave. Since they both receive the same amount of leave, is Susan still the primary carer? Could her employer argue she’s not?
“The way some policies are written, it could potentially be argued that [Susan] isn’t a primary carer in this situation.”
“I think we’re on the precipice of an enormous shift around the way we support families in the workplace.” Emma Walsh, CEO Parents at Work.
2. Make sure it’s inclusive
Modern families don’t fit into a single mould, so a progressive parental leave policy should accommodate all types.
“When we review a parental leave policy for an organisation, this is one of the first things we look for. Does your policy cover same-sex parents? Does it consider families formed through adoption or surrogacy?”
Removing any gendered labels, as mentioned above, is a good start, but Welsh suggests taking a fine-toothed comb to your policies to remove any hetronormative suggestions or assumptions, i.e references to new parents being only mothers and fathers.
Walsh says forward-thinking organisations should also consider the need for leave prior to the birth or adoption of a child.
“We’ve seen some really fantastic organisations offering flexible options for people undergoing IVF or adoption, which can require additional time off.”
The Fair Work Act allows parents to take two days of unpaid leave to attend adoption-related interviews or examinations.
3. Include considerations for early pregnancy loss
Tragically, 103,000 Australian couples experience an early pregnancy loss each year.
Walsh believes this unfortunate reality needs to be incorporated into progressive parental leave policies.
Last year Commonwealth Bank introduced leave for parents who experience a stillbirth. Primary carers can access 12 weeks of paid leave while secondary carers can access two weeks.
Under the Fair Work Act pregnant people are entitled to unpaid special maternity leave if they experience early pregnancy loss after 12 weeks. Pink Elephants advocate to include two days of bereavement leave for those who experience a miscarriage before 12 weeks. According to the organisation’s website, 98 per cent of losses happen prior to the 12-week mark.
“Leave doesn’t all have to be squished in and taken in a child’s first year of life.” Emma Walsh, CEO Parents at Work.
4. Continue superannuation payments
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, almost half of Australian women aged between 45 and 59 have $8,000 or less in superannuation than their male counterparts.
There are numerous reasons for this gap. Women earn less than men on average, they’re also largely employed in part-time or casual roles, meaning they earn less over their lifetime. Another reason is a discontinuation of super payments while they’re on parental leave.
“One of the ways organisations can assist in closing that gap, and making sure women don’t retire in poverty, is to ensure superannuation is provided when parents are on paid or unpaid parental leave.”
Real estate investment trust Dexus recognised this issue after conducting a financial impact analysis on parental leave.
It now continues superannuation payments for up to 12 months while an employee is on leave. Employees also have the option to receive payments at half-pay if they wish to extend their leave.
5. Allow for flexibility
When asked which organisation has one of the best parental leave policies, Walsh points to Deloitte’s flexible options as an outstanding policy.
Deloitte offers all new parents 18 weeks of paid leave, which is extremely generous. To take it a step further, employees who don’t want or need the full 18 weeks of leave can take it flexibly. Employees can take the leave in one stretch, they can double the amount of leave by working part time over 36 weeks, or they could take it as needed up to three years after becoming a parent.
“Leave doesn’t all have to be squished in and taken in a child’s first year of life. I think it’s extremely progressive to allow parents to take it over the three years,” says Walsh.
Medibank also introduced flexibility through its ‘FamilyFlex’ policy. Medibank designed the policy after noticing a low number of new parents returning to the workplace.
Interestingly, both Deloitte and Medibank noticed an uptake in men utilising parental leave when flexible options were introduced. Medibank saw a 25 per cent increase in the number of new fathers taking more than two weeks of leave after introducing their FamilyFlex policy.
6. Consider the impact on your culture and brand
Walsh says parental leave policies aren’t just a necessity for current employees. They’re also a great talent acquisition tool.
In 2015, music streaming site Spotify introduced a parental leave policy that was available to all employees regardless of which country they worked in. Spotify has credited this policy for the 20,000 job applications it receives every month.
“That was huge publicity for them,” says Walsh. “That’s real evidence that these kinds of schemes are popular and will attract talent to organisations.”
How you approach your parental leave policy reflects how you feel about your employees and their families, says Walsh.
“Do you want to be known as an organisation that’s family friendly? An organisation that’s inclusive of your employees’ families, that acknowledges that work often goes home with your employees?
“Are you going to return that by having a stance that family is respected and invited into the workplace?”
AHRI members can access a range of templates and guides for nearly any workplace policy. Head to AHRI:Assist to find out more.