Beyond Maternity: The Global Evolution of Workplace Leave

May 18, 2023

Written by
Lindsey Berger

The last decade has seen an explosion of employee-friendly leave policies around the globe, but there is also a school of thought that suggests that this alone is not enough and is in fact simply exacerbating the already turbulent division between work and home life. Our Lindsey Berger investigates further.

The evolution of workplace leave varies widely by country and culture.  The origins of parental leave, for example, can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Greece and Rome, when women would take time off from their duties after giving birth in order to care for their newborns.  Often this time, known as lying-in or confinement, would last up to a month, when new mothers would be supported by midwives and other women in their community. Over centuries, parental leave gained traction and in the early 1900s countries such as Sweden and Germany introduced legislation that actually provided for formal maternity leave.  Despite the increasing presence of women in the workforce, the United States did not enact any federal legislation providing for maternity leave until the late1970s, or parental leave until 1993.  

In spite of this slow start, the last decade has seen an explosion of employee-friendly leave policies around the globe. European countries have led the charge, with creative and innovative offerings for employees struggling to balance life and work.  

In recent months one such innovative offering, divorce leave, has become a hot topic as a number of UK companies introduced policies for staff going through a divorce or separation.  Asda, Tesco, NatWest, and Vodafone are among employers who voiced support for the scheme being promoted by the Positive Parenting Alliance – a group who believe that children deserve a positive experience during parental separation.  The aim of the initiative is to put marital separation in the same category as other life events like death or illness, entitling separating parents to flexible schedules, extra leave, and help to access support services should they need them.

A 2021 UK study found that 60% of divorcing or divorced employees felt it impacted their mental health in the workplace, whilst the Nashville Business Journal has previously reported that an employee will lose 40% of their productivity for the six months before their divorce and up to five years after it, demonstrating that even in the absence of a formal leave policy, a focus on work-life support and the engagement of life event management services can be crucial to helping employees stay committed to their jobs while coping with crises.

Another creative and alternative workplace leave policy that has arisen in Europe is menstrual leave, with Spain being the first country to adopt it.  Under the policy, employees are entitled to a three-day leave of absence per month for severe or disabling menstruation.  Although severe menstruation does not likely cause a significant portion of the workforce to quit their jobs, it has been shown to have a meaningful impact on focus and work productivity the way any other symptomatic medical condition would.  Although this may seem like an extreme solution, APAC countries like Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have already introduced some form of menstrual leave, with great success.  The challenge is breaking through the stigma to encourage women to take advantage of the benefit, and ensuring that those who do so are not discriminated against.  

In the same vein, menopause too can have a debilitating impact on daily life.  A survey conducted by the UK parliament found that one in three women were missing work due to menopause, with 75% also reporting experiencing problems with memory and concentration and 69% with anxiety and depression.  Respondents reported not discussing their symptoms at work for fear of the stigma and discrimination, and because they had no idea who to talk to about their symptoms. Even more striking, the Menopause Charity reports that 10% of women actually quit their jobs due to menopause; the global cost of menopause-related productivity losses to businesses may be as much as $150 billion per year.  Although the EU and UK seem to be attempting to address the issue, any policy changes relating to menopause leave remain in their infancy.

To date, the Bank of Ireland and London City Hall have recently made history by implementing a paid menopause leave policy, with a committee of UK Parliament members calling for a menopause leave trial. Others have introduced menopause policies too, including retail giant Marks & Spencer, which has developed a comprehensive “Manage Your Menopause” microsite for staff, provided guidance to managers, and formed a specialist group to provide support to employees. The initiative has had great success, leading to fewer absences and less staff turnover.  In Australia, FutureSuper, a retirement fund, now offers women up to six days of menopause (and menstrual) leave per year, in addition to personal and sick leave.  Remarkably, within the first six months of the policy going into effect, 22% of women took advantage of it.  Given the staggering statistics regarding the negative impact of menopause on work quality, concentration, and commitment, menopause leave, or at a minimum, accommodations for women suffering from menopause symptoms, seems to be a step in the right direction.  

These new leave policies come alongside the more long-standing policies such as bereavement leave and, at many of those companies, the bereavement policies also now cover pregnancy loss and miscarriage, whether or not this is legislated for in the country in which they operate.

However, critics have argued that the expansion of workplace leave is not the answer when it comes to supporting valued employees in difficult times.  Whilst undoubtedly people need time off to grieve, deal with caregiving responsibilities, or receive support for medical issues, there is also a school of thought that suggests that this alone is not enough and is in fact simply exacerbating the already turbulent division between work and home life.  Analysts too fear that some of these leave policies may in fact deepen further the gender inequality in the workplace, not only when it comes to leave allowances for maternity, menstruation, or menopause, but also because the statistics show that the bulk of caregiving and childcare responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on women.

So, for those employers who want to offer a more holistic and targeted package of support in order to retain and support their talented employees, what can they do alongside leave to achieve or approach a work-life balance?  

1.    Ensure that your company offers practical and logistical support for employees navigating serious life events and, if your business cannot internally provide the support, then look to benefits and organizations that can.  Make sure that this is done at an early stage and before it becomes overwhelming.

2.    Prioritize human connection and compassion.  Simply listening to your employees, showing empathy and understanding and taking on what they consider to be challenging can go a long way.  For larger employers who may be unable to show individualized attention, the availability of a counselor or therapist could improve the situation for many, or the use of a life event concierge program could provide the necessary tools to help an employee through a crisis.

3.    Be flexible.  Instituting progressive leave policies may not be feasible or practical for all employers. In this post-Covid world there are a plethora of alternatives to leave, including remote working, and flexible schedules, which may allow employees facing certain life events to work in a way that does not require taking leave.  Even if remote or flex-time work is not a generally accepted policy at a particular employer, allowing for flexibility for employees coping with a significant life event may go a long way towards retaining those employees, while possibly obviating the need for non-essential leave options.

4.    Early intervention is key.  Make sure you have an open relationship with employees and, if they are showing signs of struggling, then intervene sooner rather than later.  Use both formal meetings and informal check ins to help alleviate problems before they occur. If you have benefits that would be helpful to them, ensure they are promoted regularly. Engaging employee support programs are also a fantastic and progressive option for employers who may wish to either supplement
workplace leave or reduce the need for certain types of workplace leave.  

5.    Provide easily accessible information about what benefits, leave, and other guidance and support employees are entitled to, but also allow for flexibility and personalization– it is very rarely the case that “one size fits all”. Whereas one employee may benefit from a simple leave from work to resolve personal issues, another employee may need more support than “time off”and may benefit from someone to assist them in coping or managing their situation.  

When it comes to workplace leave, many countries and employers are moving in the right direction to retain talent and help employees balance life and work.  However, more work is needed to track employees’ life challenges and needs, and employee benefits policies must be adjusted accordingly to include additional leave, accommodations, benefit services to help with life events, and mental health support.  The statistics support the need for these evolving policies, with a recent Willis Towers Watson survey where 85% of employees stated they would be more likely to stay in their role if their employer focused more on wellbeing. Providing a calm, compassionate and supportive harbor in turbulent times can create a loyal employee for years to come and ensure the retention of key talent. After all, the most valuable asset of every company is its people.
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