Shared parental leave – changing the goal posts

Shared parental leave has been in place for seven months but is it taking off? Heather Greig-Smith looks at progress so far and at controversial government plans to extend the leave to grandparents.

6816838606_228635ef3c_oIt is arguably too early to start analysing the take up of shared parental leave (SPL). The policy, which only came into effect in April this year, promises long-term cultural change, not overnight transformation. For that same reason, government’s announcement of its intention to meddle with the policy and extend it to grandparents seems premature.

While appreciating the role that grandparents play and actively campaigning for greater flexibility for them, many question whether SPL is the right vehicle for achieving this.

At the start of October, Chancellor George Osborne said he would implement an extension of shared parental leave and pay to grandparents in 2018. Government will consult on the details in the first half of 2016. So far it is not clear if mothers would be able to share their leave with one other person or combine it with both partners and grandparents.

Announcing the policy, Osborne said evidence shows more than half of mothers rely on grandparents for childcare when they first go back to work after maternity leave, and over 60% of working grandparents with grandchildren aged under 16 provide some childcare. “In total, some seven million grandparents are involved in childcare. The new system will also provide flexibility in working arrangements for grandparents without fear of losing their job.”

He added that, of working grandparents who have never taken time off work to care for grandchildren under 16, around one in 10 have not been able to do so because they have either been refused time off by their employer, or simply felt that they weren’t able to ask. “As a result, parents will be able to return to work sooner if they wish to.”

Recognition or dilution?

Those concerned with the role of fathers in the family and focused on SPL’s intentions of gender equality are concerned. Joint chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute Adrienne Burgess said the extension will undermine gender equality by reducing the likelihood of fathers taking leave.

“The clue is in the name. Shared parental leave should be for parents,” she says. “By suggesting a widening of the policy to grandparents (for which read grandmothers), and justifying this on the grounds that ‘more than half of mothers rely on grandparents for childcare when they return to work’, Mr Osborne is placing all the responsibility for organising childcare on mothers’ shoulders…. and undermining the much-needed potential of the SPL policy to provide space for fathers to play a more equal role in caregiving in the precious early months of their children’s lives.”

She points to longitudinal studies showing the huge benefits for children and families if fathers perform some solo-care – benefits not replicated by grandparental care.

“SPL is far from perfect as a policy, but we need to give it time to ‘bed down’ and for employers to get to grips with their vital role in supporting mums and dads to share it more equitably – to the benefit of both parents’ careers, and their children’s wellbeing,” says Burgess.

Others agree. Sarah Jackson, chief executive of charity Working Families, likens it to “slicing the salami”, saying that it doesn’t give employers time to establish a policy before it changes. She firmly believes grandparents need additional flexibility and leave to cope with their caring responsibilities but says SPL is not the best way to do that.

“SPL is complicated as it is and adding another complication will make it less easy to bed down. It’s in danger of undermining the gender equality objective of the original policy,” she says.

Grandparents Plus chief executive Dr Lucy Peake welcomes “recognition of grandparents’ vital caring role as well as the introduction of greater choice for families about balancing child care and work”. She says grandmothers are a particular support for single mothers who have to work.

However, she points out that this support is not confined to the first year of a child’s life. “The focus on the first year does call into question who is best placed to provide care for children. We don’t want to do anything to undermine strong attachments with mum or dad.”


Employer views

At October event on SPL by provider of corporate coaching, consultancy and care solutions My Family Care, employers were polled on their views about extending the leave to grandparents. While 12% felt it was a step too far, 21% said they welcomed and encouraged the idea, and 67% were undecided.

MFC director and head of coaching & consultancy Jennifer Liston-Smith said there are mixed views on the idea of extending SPL to grandparents. “It is a breath of fresh air for single parents, for whom there was previously no option to share leave,” she says. “But have we done enough for dads first? If you are only allowed to choose one person to share leave with then dads may have missed the chance before we’ve even started.”

She says it could also add to the administrative burden for employers, many of whom feel compelled to make checks on what their employees are telling them, despite the fact that government does not require them to do so.

As employment minister in the coalition government, Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson was responsible for bringing in SPL. Even before the policy was implemented she spoke of the need to constrain it to parents.

“We did really consider this. Grandparents are often a really important part of their grandchildren’s lives and the support network for the parents,” she says. “The reason we didn’t extend SPL to grandparents is that SPL is about enabling new parents to develop a bond with their children and for dads to be able to do that as well as mums.”

She adds that this could become something expected of grandparents, who may not welcome the pressure.

When it comes to implementing an extension, Swinson says both options are tricky – a binary choice of partner or grandparent, or the ability to mix between several people. “Either the father doesn’t get a chance to take SPL at all or there has to be a much more complicated system in place [to allow the mother to relinquish leave and reallocate to different people at different times.]”

There are other ways grandparents can be supported, say experts. These include flexible working policies and periods of leave for family adjustment and caring. “We really want to encourage government to look at that longer term commitment to giving grandparents support. More and more grandparents are likely to be working as the retirement age goes up,” says Peake.

Employers are already starting to think about helping other workers who aren’t catered for under SPL, maternity and paternity policies. Eleanor Silverio, UK benefits policy lead at Shell, says: “We had already been considering how paid leave may develop going forward, so were not surprised to see the recent government initiative regarding grandparents leave.”

Shared parental leave so far

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is not expected to evaluate SPL before 2018.

Research due to be published shortly by Working Families will show that almost half employers polled have seen take up roughly in line with or exceeding expectations. The charity surveyed 80 organisations representing close to one million employees. It says many are seeing 20-30% of their eligible employees taking the leave.

“Some haven’t seen any take up yet. The majority of organisations are just offering statutory or waiting to see what’s going to happen,” says Jackson. “It is clearly a mix of whether you’re matching the pay, the culture of your organisation and how you’re communicating it.”

Shell enhanced SPL pay equally with maternity pay from April. “We already knew that we wanted to equalise SPL with maternity but we wanted to check that our maternity was still fair, current, in line with the business needs and fit for purpose. So the first thing we did was to review the maternity policy. We benchmarked it externally and then equalised it with SPL,” says Silverio.

She says staff appreciated the equality of the policy between men and women – realising that wasn’t always replicated in other companies. “We stole a march on that in some respects but I do think it’s just a matter of time before many more companies will follow suit.

Take-up has been small. “We expected that. Data from our colleagues in Norway who have a similar policy confirmed it would be a slow burn,” she says. “Their experience was that if a senior individual took advantage of the policy and publicised it, you would quickly see the increase in take up with the rest of your population”.

The My Family Care poll found that 60% had not had any take up. Only 2% had lots of take up, with the remaining 38% saying a few had opted for the leave so far but the numbers are growing.

Liston-Smith says: “Take up is not going very quickly but that’s not unexpected. With additional paternity leave, companies tended to have one or two queries or cases initially. These things tend to be gradual and represent a big cultural shift.”

Decisions on whether to enhance pay inevitably have a huge impact on the take up figures as does the culture of the organisation. Liston-Smith says those who have committed to SPL, enhanced pay and worked to communicate it to staff are seeing a steady trickle of take up. For others it is “not on the radar”. “For many organisations it will be down to the employee to know they can ask about it.”

Some have still to decide what their policy will be months after SPL was introduced. From the MFC poll, 43% had matched maternity pay, a further 12% had enhanced to a lower level than maternity, 12% had decided not to and 33% were currently not enhancing but still thinking about doing so.

Numbers game

Many feel it is hard to budget when you don’t know numbers. However, some organisations made significant efforts to predict the impact in advance of the April introduction. One financial institution calculated that 5% of the workforce become new parents each year, with a 50:50 split between men and women.

“We surveyed every employee who had taken maternity or paternity leave in the last three years,” says a spokesperson. “At the time the government was telling us to expect take up of 8%. We calculated 70% would have been eligible for SPL and out of them 30% would have been genuinely interested had it been available and would have taken around 12 weeks. Of the mums who took maternity leave, 80% would have been prepared to give up some leave but they were thinking more like 4 weeks.”

It decided to offer parity with maternity leave and pay: 26 weeks enhanced. So far 11 employees have taken SPL, with all men choosing to take single blocks of leave instead of discontinuous leave. The shortest period of time has been three weeks, with more opting for longer periods, averaging 16 weeks.

The company plans to track their progress over the long term. “From an HR perspective I’m very concerned about these early pioneers and what happens to them. We will be looking at performance, promotion and compensation to make sure there are good outcomes.”

Accenture is also keen to monitor experiences in this area. It has 25 people who have taken up SPL after it equalised maternity, adoption and shared parental leave. It offers up to 32 weeks full pay to all mothers, primary adopters, fathers or partners.

“A huge amount of work went into shaping that policy – we ran workshops with current parents, parents of older children and parents to be,” says UK & Ireland head of Human Capital & Diversity Tony Horan.

Most of those taking SPL are men and the average time requirement is 18-20 weeks. The number includes one of the firm’s managing directors. “We are profiling people who have taken SPL and are asking them to blog about their experiences, good and bad.”

Sarah Jackson says monitoring is vital and urges other organisations to follow suit. “Some have no plans to monitor. This is your opportunity – put the monitoring in now and think of it as long-term. What’s happening to them when they come back? How supported do they feel? Are there any manager or performance issues? If you discover things are not where you want with SPL you can bet they aren’t great for maternity returners either.”


Full potential

Even where the take up of SPL is relatively good, the policy is not necessarily being used to its full potential.

Liston-Smith points out that there are many options for parents, including the “radical option” of using the SPL equivalent of ‘Keeping in Touch (KIT) days’ (SPLIT, or Shared Parental Leave in Touch, days) to effectively work part-time. With 20 SPLIT days, it would be possible to negotiate a period of SPL that involved working two or three days a week – temporary part-time working with no contract change.

“It’s very complicated for people to get their heads around the fact that that’s possible,” says Sarah Jackson. She adds: “One surprising thing that people haven’t got to grips with is that they can be on leave at the same time.”

Working Families is seeing a steady stream of enquiries to its helpline for employees, but says there are frequent misconceptions about how it works. Employees also aren’t always aware of the formal notice that needs to be given – notice of intent and booking notice. They need to allow plenty of time for that process to be able to take the leave.

Another area where there is mixed understanding is that of discontinuous leave. Jackson says over 80% of the people they have surveyed are reporting that people are taking a single block of leave.

Liston-Smith says it’s not necessarily well understood that one booking notice can be used to book several periods of discontinuous leave. And also that the employer cannot completely rule out separate blocks of leave since those eligible for SPL do have the right to request up to three blocks, as long as they give eight weeks’ notice each time.

However, the discontinuous leave option has been popular at Shell. “Whilst we have struggled with the systems element of discontinuous leave, the business and employees have seen that as a real benefit as it enables them to reach an agreement that works equally for both parties,” says Silverio.

Employer confusion

It’s not just individuals who are confused. Employers are also struggling in some cases. Liston-Smith says some HR managers feel ill equipped to answer questions on SPL and that many organisations are failing to prepare line managers to have conversations about it. “HR departments have a huge number of areas to think about but it can be added into other things if the organisation is forward thinking enough, such as briefings on maternity/paternity, good management or people matters,” she says.

Some are also worried about saying the wrong thing, says Vanessa Hogan, counsel at law firm Hogan Lovells. “Knowledge is key. It’s a complex policy and has been hard for managers and employees to come to grips with. There are so many routes to eligibility that line managers are finding that a little bit nerve wracking. You need training for managers to understand how to take a consistent approach. The nervousness will die down as requests come in.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be legal stumbling blocks. “Commentators have raised the possibility of an indirect sex discrimination claim where pay is not enhanced in the same way as maternity – we have to wait and see on that front. At some point one will probably come along.” she adds.

On the positive side, a knock on effect of the SPL publicity may be greater take up of paternity leave. Working Families reports anecdotal evidence that at least one member has seen a rise in the number of fathers making use of their two weeks’ leave. My Family Care has also seen some companies opting to improve their paternity offering rather than focusing on SPL.

“Perhaps culturally, even where pay is available for two weeks’ paternity leave, fathers may previously have felt under pressure not to be away from work – maybe it’s chipping away at that,” says Liston Smith.

Employers having success in SPL are not resting on their laurels. Accenture is keen to spread take up to the whole workforce. “Primarily it is the client-facing workforce taking this up. It’s far easier to slot in SPL with projects. But we also want our internal workforce to feel able to take up SPL,” says Horan.

Scandinavian example

While the government pushes on with extending SPL to grandparents, other believe time and money would be better spent following the Scandinavian example of ear-marking periods of leave for fathers alone. In countries where this is done, such as Norway and Sweden, take-up is higher.

Swinson campaigned in the general election on this point – suggesting dads should have six weeks of leave. “If you really want to drive take-up you need a chunk of time dedicated exclusively for fathers. If you want to do that without reducing the amount of time mothers are eligible for you have to give an extra four weeks to dad. Funding this is a challenge [but] I think that is very much worth doing.”

Solving the financing is key. “There’s no question there should be some leave earmarked for fathers but it has to be paid and that’s the great stumbling block,” says Jackson.

Cause for optimism?

While there are ways SPL could be made even more attractive to parents, employers who have embraced the policy and are communicating it enthusiastically are positive about the future. Silverio says while there were challenges faced in communicating the message in such a global company and systems challenges, she is “cautiously optimistic that this is a new dawn of equality”.

Tony Horan at Accenture agrees. “I think we’re on the cusp of societal change. We can see that Millennials want a flexible approach to work and the role for men and women in parenting is becoming equal.”

In the meantime, organisations will soon be called on to give their views on the proposed extension of SPL to grandparents. This will at least open up conversations on the support needed for those with wider caring responsibilities.

More on this subject:

Magic or madness: extending SPL

Dads: flexible work is for you

Other resources:

My Family Care SPL resource pack

Image credits:


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