Bumpy ride and slow uptake in first two years of shared parental leave rules 0

Concerns over career prospects impact take up of shared parental leaveIt is two years since the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL), where couples were given the ability to share leave surrounding the arrival of a new addition to their family; and while sharing leave is seen to have a profound beneficial impact for the family, there are still plenty of barriers. According to research from My Family Care, one of the largest is that  there is a sense that it involves a big risk with real concerns around the impact on a father’s career if they were to take more than two or three months off. A second report from the charity Working Families found that despite the initial slow take up of new rights, more than half of fathers would use Shared Parental Leave. However, snapshot figures for the first three months of 2016 showed that 3,000 new parents were taking up the new right. If the maternity leave figure is taken as indicative of the number of couples with new babies at the time the new figures are in line with the bottom of the government’s 2013 estimated take-up range – between two and eight per cent of fathers.

The legislation was introduced for babies born on or after 5 April 2015, offers parents greater choice around how childcare decisions are made in the first year of a child’s life, or following adoption. After the two weeks of compulsory maternity leave, eligible parents may share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay with their partner.  Parents can take leave in alternate blocks or both be off at the same time.

According to My Family Care, while two months’ absence is thought to be manageable, possibly three at a push, there is a feeling that any more than this would have a ‘negative’ or ‘stalling’ impact on career prospects. There also appears to be trouble making sense of the policy details – with many people feeling that HR practitioners are as uncertain as the individual. Unintentional bureaucracy is a stumbling block too, where HR departments are grappling with the process of understanding SPL.

During February and March 2017, My Family Care commissioned a small qualitative research study into the impact that SPL has had for eligible individuals since it launched in 2015 – exploring how it is being used by parents and what may stand in the way of greater uptake in the future. As a piece of qualitative research, the study was based on 12 in-depth interviews, undertaken by independent research agency, Intrinsic Insight. Participants were selected from a range of predominantly financial services, professional services and multinational companies based in London and the Midlands.

Ben Black, CEO of My Family Care says: “Shared Parental Leave was a big step in the right direction to increase gender diversity in the workplace, support women as they return to work and enable men to be more involved in raising their children.  Our research has shown that it has received a warm welcome but there is still a long way to go in educating staff on the benefits of sharing leave and there is a real need for more role models – in particular, senior staff willing to take SPL and stand up and talk about their experiences. What is worrying was the perception from employees that HR departments were still confused over the legislation which therefore hinders staff uptake of the policy, indicative of a need to hold more training for those at the sharp end of HR, around what it means for their own workforce.”

Other insights from the qualitative research include a need for more role models.  Word of mouth recommendation between peers and the impact of seeing those who have done it and benefited from SPL inspires others.  Fathers suggest that knowing others who have taken SPL is critical in gaining support and advice.

Personal financial circumstances or the mother’s situation and preferences will ultimately dictate what is possible when it comes to SPL.  Some fathers insisted that their decision not to take SPL was borne largely out of their partners’ desire to take their full maternity entitlement. Interestingly, city financial and professional services firms can be more generous in enhancing pay for SPL – and are likely to be atypical.

Meanwhile, over 300 fathers took part in the new survey from Working Families. It found:

  • 52 percent said they would make use of the scheme. The main reasons they gave were to spend time bonding with their new child, and because they and their partner want to share care
  • Of those fathers who said they wouldn’t use the scheme, more than a third said this was because they couldn’t afford to
  • A quarter of fathers didn’t know about SPL.

To help increase awareness of SPL, Working Families has worked with Alliance Manchester Business School, Lancaster University School of Management and the Fatherhood Institute to create a new video case book showing the first-hand experiences of parents who have used the scheme.

Sarah Jackson OBE, Chief Executive of Working Families, said: “It’s obvious many fathers want to spend time bonding with their child in the early days and to share care with their partner.  The fact that more than half of fathers want to make use of SPL shows how far we have come on the journey towards shared care and shared careers. Good news for families but also good news for the economy. Father willingness and aspiration is there.  As we embark on EU exit negotiations the government has said it wants to protect and enhance the rights people have at work.  An excellent place to start would be making SPL a day one right for fathers.

“But families are unlikely to make use of SPL unless it makes financial sense for them to do so. The government should consider equalising statutory maternity pay and shared parental pay – to prevent SPL being a second-class option and encourage more fathers to use it.  Employers going beyond the minimum pay for SPL would also make it a more realistic option for more families.”