Friday, January 27, 2023

‘It Takes A Village’… Or A Workplace? How Good Parental Leave Policies Can Fill A Gap For New Parents

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In the bad old days of parental leave, you had a baby, took some (unpaid) leave and then had to return to business as normal. Now, a historically tight labour market combined with empathetic leadership AND new work values means that good parental leave policies are moving with the times and helping support new parents, rather than punish them.

It’s not often you look at a new company policy and the word ‘holistic’ springs to mind, but that’s exactly what we saw when we first read the new whānau policy from Contact Energy. With its inclusion of benefits such as 26 weeks salary top-up, six months fully paid flexible working, free power, childcare koha and food delivery, it felt less like a workplace policy and more like a community initiative, designed to fill the gaps that can occur as the social safety net gets smaller and smaller for modern parents.

So, we decided to speak to three experts in the field about what makes for a good parental leave policy in 2022 and why it’s become such a front and centre topic for many big companies, after so many decades of being on the back burner.

‘The new key workplace metrics are wellbeing and belonging’

We’ve seen many a groundswell workplace movement start as a result of Covid but Agnes Naera, Ngā Puhi and Ngāti Raukawa and CEO of Global Women thinks the centre that many of these new values revolve around is that of wellbeing.

Covid, climate change, and political unrest means that some of the new metrics are wellbeing and belonging – and so everyone has to take this stuff seriously,” she says. “One positive thing that has come out of Covid is that it did join us more – people got this sense that the thing that was going to get us through was each other.

“The biggest change I see with parental leave policies is that we’ve gone from ‘it’s about a woman having a baby’ to so much more than that. It’s about families, communities and society. Covid gave everyone more time with their families and, for a lot of people, made them realise how much time they had been missing out on. That idea of flexibility is now a key value and at the end of the day, wellbeing and belonging are the things that are going to keep your workforce performing, as well as keeping your staff in general. It’s a short-term investment for a long-term gain.”

It’s a big shift, she says, from earlier days where money was seen as the be-all-and-end-all of what companies were happy to offer to keep employees. “You’d pay people more money and then get good talent, but that’s not what people are wanting any more. They’re wanting a personalised experience that fits the current stage of their career and their life – and not just millennials or young ones, but everyone. Businesses haven’t had to face that before.”

A tight labour market = more power to the worker

All three experts cited our current labour market as one of the biggest factors in favour of employee – and parent – rights in the workplace. Jason Shoebridge, Chief Executive of NZ Institute of Economic Research Inc (NZIER) says that in a labour market like this one, it’s pure bad business not to focus on retention.

From an economic perspective, Jason says, if parents aren’t supported in having work/life balance, they will be that much more likely to leave. “We’re in this historically tight labour market and so if you are excluding large sections of your workforce from working, it’s going to have a negative impact on the New Zealand economy. And then on a workplace level, if people don’t feel supported… it’s likely their productivity is going to be less as well.”

In the most recent results from an NZIER survey, it was found that 45% of companies offer some sort of parental leave enhancement on top of what the government policies are, and that the bulk of those policies offer a flexible return to work as the main part of that policy.

“The horror stories of women returning to work… they’re littered everywhere in New Zealand.”

While flexibility is now a key part of good policies, Jason says the really good parental leave policies have an understanding of both the extra time that’s needed for parents AND the extra money required as well. “The irony is that when you are on parental leave, you have more time but you have very little money. When you go back to work, you’ve almost got the opposite problem where you have almost no time but you’ve got more money coming in,” Jason says. “So, it’s important that parental leave policies look to address both of these issues.”

For instance with the Contact Energy policy, not only is there the immediate support of food deliveries and salary top up – for the in-the-trenches part of newborn life, – but also $5k for childcare and more sick leave, as an acknowledgement of the fact that parental policies have to reflect the entirety of parent life – not just the first few months.

The workplace has become part of the village

The saying ‘it takes a village’ is one of those child-rearing quotes that probably sounded really good 40 years ago and now is most likely to receive a cold, hard cackle from any new parent you know, thanks to increased work responsibilities and less community support. In some cases, good parental leave policies are now filling a gap left by our more disconnected societies.

“The reality is, these days many families have both parents having to work and work is an integral part of people’s lives,” says Jan Bibby, Chief People & Transformation Officer at Contact Energy. “Conversely, families aren’t always living together in the same towns and cities and so, to some degree, their workplace is part of their village.

“I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that businesses have an obligation to fill a role that families usually would, but we definitely have a role in supporting our people in a way that helps them to thrive.”

Particularly since the pandemic, our work and home lives are more integrated than ever, Jan says. “Everybody has the right to be a great parent and a great employee – and you can’t compartmentalise those two parts of people’s lives. You can’t be a parent before you go to work, and then after work, and not in between! You have to allow people to blend those two things as seamlessly as you can.”

“Everybody has the right to be a great parent and a great employee – and you can’t compartmentalise those two parts of people’s lives.”

That support needs to start while the parent is on parental leave, to help manage the transition back into the office. “I remember back to when I had children and apart from the fact that there was zero financial support from anyone – government or employers! – returning to work was probably one of the hardest things I faced,” Jan says of her own experience. “There was no flexibility to be both a parent and an employee, particularly if you were a woman.”

It’s still a big barrier for many mothers returning to the workplace. As Agnes from Global Women says, “The horror stories of women returning to work… they’re littered everywhere in New Zealand. It was that view of ‘well, she’s done that and now she’s back!’”

A lack of support affects women in multiple ways – starting with confidence. “I’ve had so many friends who were the smartest person in the room, but when they stayed home with their kids, they lost that confidence – even though they were still the smartest person in the room!” Agnes says.

“They’ve been part of the fabric of the organisation for a very long time and you want them back. So, it’s great when companies provide a pathway – we provide pathways for other reasons, like for graduates entering the workforce, so we should also provide pathways for those who have been caring for children.”

The pathway is a great analogy for why good parental leave policies are so important – because it’s not just important for new parents at that part of the journey, it’s important for those just starting out as well. If you’re just entering the workforce and you see that parents in your chosen company are punished or cut out of the conversation once they have children, it’s going to limit the supposed timeframe you see yourself at that company. Nobody wants to feel like their uterus is a ticking time bomb, signalling the end of their career.

Nobody wants to feel like their uterus is a ticking time bomb, signalling the end of their career.

A good parental leave policy, says Jason from NZIER, not only attracts good workers, it also “signals what kind of company you are,” he says. “It will definitely have impact on retention – if you’ve got the option of working for a company that’s got a really good set of parental leave policies, versus a company that just gives you the statutory minimum, it’s likely to be a consideration to not only join them if it’s important to you, but to stay with them.”

And then that leads us to the other end of the pathway – the upper echelons of management and the pay gap, both of which are affected by parental leave policies.

“We work in an industry where, particularly in the generation side of the business, we have way more men – and we have a pay gap in that area,” says Jan of the Contact Energy gender balance. “We want to attract more women into that generation side – and you can’t just do that by offering great salaries, you have to do that by saying ‘here’s an environment where, if you come and work for us, we’ll make it work for you as much as we can.’”

Because if you’re trying to attract skilled, experienced females – you are looking at the 30+ age group… which is also when people have children. “Exactly,” Jan says. “And you don’t want them to disappear and not come back – what a waste of a great resource!”

This attitude of ‘let’s change generational gender gaps’ is a big driver across the board of the 50+ companies Global Women works with, says CEO Agnes Naera. “These leaders want a better Aotearoa – they are good people and they realise they have privilege and power… they want to be on the right side of history.”

And when a big company like Contact Energy creates a policy like this, it has a ripple effect on the industry that benefits everyone. “In this tight labour market, you get a bit of momentum,” says Jason from NZIER. “If you’re in the industry and you’ve got a competitor who’s offering a policy that you’re not, it puts a lot of pressure on you to be able to offer something as well.”

And you know who this momentum benefits? Kiwi parents – both current, and future. And it’s about damn time!

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