While there’s no doubt that the United States has a long way to go in its support for new parents compared to other countries, the idea of maternity leave, at least, is normalized in our culture. More or less, we expect new moms to take some amount of time off to spend with baby after birth. But what about new dads or secondary caregivers? In the US, paternity leave is perceived as a nice-to-have, not a must-have — and this is reflected in company policies throughout the country.
Far fewer men report receiving paid parental leave than women. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), federal law grants fathers (or other secondary caregivers) up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the majority of fathers take only 10 days or less.
Workplace pressure and the idea of the “breadwinner” father, combined with the lack of support for new dads among US employers, has created a culture that largely deprioritizes paternity leave. This needs to change, and for reasons that go well beyond baby-bonding time.
In addition to the obvious benefits of paternity leave – support for the partner, bonding time with baby — it is, simply put, good for business.
A healthier, happier workplace
Years ago, a principal engineer and rising star in the company I was working for announced that he would not return to work as planned after his brief paternity leave. His wife had experienced a complicated birth, and in the midst of sleepless nights, he decided to take a less demanding role at a larger and more established company, thinking he could no longer cut it at a high-growth startup.
Three months later after settling into his new life at home, he got in touch with us and shared that he regretted his choice to leave. He said he wished he had more time to adjust to being a dad, and that his new role was unchallenging and mundane compared to the high impact role he held with us. In reflecting on this, I’ve often thought that had we provided a longer paternity leave, he would have been given the time and space he needed to adjust, and the business would have never suffered the loss of a great employee.
What’s often forgotten in the dialogue of new parenthood is the role of the father – who, in many cases, is right there in the trenches with mom: enduring sleepless nights, cooking meals, and managing errands. Not to mention grappling with an entirely new responsibility in the form of a tiny human at home. Chances are, you’d feel uncomfortable boarding a plane being flown by a sleep-deprived father. Why should we expect them to have the same decision-making abilities immediately after welcoming a new child as they did before? It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect new dads to return to work with guns blazing right after birth.
Nor would it make them happy workers. In a recent workplace happiness report, we found that men ranked good work/life balance as the most important driver of happiness at work. Increasingly, men (especially millennials, now in their peak child-rearing years) are demanding better work/life balance from employers and challenging inadequate paternity leave policies. To put it bluntly, fathers are fed up.
Fathers who don’t take the full amount of leave offered – or aren’t offered enough leave by their employers – face performance challenges as a result of stress and sleep deprivation, resulting in a higher number of departures. Conversely, it’s a demonstrated fact that longer parental leave positively correlates with higher employee retention. When Google extended its paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, the company saw a 50% increase in employee retention among women who had babies. Similarly, when you extend paternity leave, you see more men returning to work (and with a clearer head on their shoulders).
An equal parental playing field
Employers play a critical role in normalizing paternity leave in our country. But it’s not enough just to offer paternity leave; employers must treat new fathers with as much careful consideration as they would a new mother.
Employers should mirror the steps they’d take for a new mom preparing to go out on leave with early stage paternity leave planning. Planning should involve a discussion of timeline, coverage while the employee is out, and how they can best transition back into their role upon returning. Just as they would with expectant mothers, employers should address how the soon-to-be dad can be supported at work while he’s out – from limiting access to emails to setting expectations with managers and teams.
By creating an established process around paternity leave, employers set the expectation that new fathers in the company take time off after baby, and encourage even the most reluctant to do so. I find that men who take paternity leave come back to work and become the biggest advocates for it within the company. Simply by prioritizing paternity leave as a core company policy, employers are presented with an incredible opportunity to nurture the next generation of parental leave advocates.
There’s been very little space for new fathers in our culture, but we have the power to change this. If employers collectively prioritize paternity leave within their organizations, we can wipe out the stigma of father leave and cultivate happy, thriving workplaces – in which everyone gets the rest they need and time to build the strong bonds that set the foundation for solid family connections.