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From here to paternity

Sue Weekes

Paternity leave

Less than 10% of men take longer than two weeks off work after the birth of a new child. Sue Weekes asks how managers can improve the uptake of paternity leave in their teams

There is no doubt that fathers want to be far more actively involved in the early months and years of their children’s lives than previous generations did. And the increased emphasis placed on work-life-balance and the importance of family-friendly policies in the workplace means that, in theory, this should be perfectly practical. Translating the desire into actions is proving much harder for many fathers in reality though.

Early next year, parents will be given the option to share parental leave between themselves over the course of the first year. It is hoped it will encourage more men to share childcare and drive more gender equality in the workplace. The Government anticipates that up to eight per cent of fathers will take up the new scheme but evidence suggests that few are making full use of the allocation already available to them. TUC analysis of a BIS report into shared leave last year revealed that less than one per cent take advantage of the Additional Paternity Leave which has been available since 2010. Meanwhile, a new report by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) found that just 14% of men take more than two weeks of paternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

The report, Shared opportunity, Parental Leave in UK business, found that employers are culturally less accepting of a father’s rights to take paternity leave. Only three-fifths (58%) of employees feel that their employer is supportive of fathers taking just two weeks paternity leave and the report also revealed that managers’ attitudes certainly aren’t helping the situation. A similar three-fifths (58%) of managers say they thought leave was ‘somewhat disruptive’ for the organisation while nearly three-quarters (72%) that it affected the efficiency and productivity of their teams.

Many of the ILM’s findings are in line with the day-to-day experiences of those working with fathers and families. Chris Muwanguzi, CEO of the Family Matters Institute (FMI), which also runs the dad.info website, says three main barriers still prevent fathers taking their full leave entitlement: a lack of awareness of paternity rights and lack of communication from employers; the reduction in earnings that taking paternity leave can result in at a time when money is most needed; and the outlook and attitude of employers and fellow employees. “Perspective is a big part. There isn’t the appreciation that people are doing something significant and spending time with their children,” says Muwanguzi. “We run a dad’s primary care group and the biggest issue fathers report is that people still can’t comprehend that a dad would stay at home as they think their place is at work.”

Discrimination at work

Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, also reports that some workplace environments don’t encourage fathers to take time off and cites pregnancy discrimination as a major disincentive. “We see high rates of this in our advice service with around 60,000 [pregnant] women each year treated unfairly and unlawfully,” she says. “Fathers who see a female colleague unfairly selected for redundancy can then be cautious when it comes to taking their extended leave.”

We run a dad’s primary care group and the biggest issue fathers report is that people still can’t comprehend that a dad would stay at home as they think their place is at work.”
Without doubt, managers’ attitudes and actions will be pivotal when it comes to shared parental leave realising the potential benefits. Bragg emphasises that both male and female managers who are new parents must start by leading by example and ensuring they take the entitlement themselves. “To send a clear message to fathers,” she says. “They also need to raise awareness of leave entitlement and about the father’s right to request flexible working.” Since the economic downturn, Bragg believes many companies have taken a backward step when it comes to parental leave and good practice is more likely to be down to individual managers than at an organisational level. “Parents find it harder to assert their rights,” she says. “It’s often a bit of a shock to new parents that the workplace isn’t as accommodating as the rhetoric from the government might suggest.”

When Muwanguzi became a father last year he did indeed lead by example, taking his additional leave. In addition to leave, the FMI also encourages fathers to be present at key dates before and after the birth such as antenatal classes and the first appointment by a health visitor. Muwanguzi says managers and organisations must clearly demonstrate support for fathers by their actions. He goes on to explain that “how” paternity leave is implemented is crucial for both the organisation and employee and problems sometimes only arise because employers do it in an impractical way. “It’s a case of managers looking at how they can make it work for both sides. They usually have several months to put things in place and schedule time-off,” he says. “Individuals do not have to take all the time off at once and can spread it across the year.”

ILM’s research reveals that most employers cover parental leave by sharing the workload across the team or department and only a quarter (24%) appoint an external person to fill the role.

Muwanguzi believes the issues relating to parental leave are so important that managers should be trained in aspects of it. “They need to encompass certain practices in their daily support of employees,” he says. “Such as asking about how things are going at home and assessing the person’s work-life balance. If managers aren’t fathers, they might not be aware what the person is going through when sleep-training. Wellbeing at home impacts on wellbeing at work and this is where some managers need educating.”

While he doesn’t think the 2015 changes will see “a rush” of fathers taking all of the leave available to them, he does feel many more will start negotiating it and recommends that HR and managers start preparing now “so when 2015 is here there are no shocks and surprises”.

Bragg would love to see the introduction of shared leave result in a substantial change in patterns of leave but is critical of the design of the system. She would like to see a model of leave based on international evidence of what is effective, citing Scandinavia and Germany as among the most progressive and successful in this area. “I’m disappointed that it isn’t being backed up by a scheme that will help families to share the leave,” she says. “In Germany, for instance, when both parents have taken at least two months of leave the family gets an additional two months of paid leave. This has increased the proportion of fathers taking two months of leave or more from three per cent to just under 30%.”

That said, the charity will do all it can to encourage families to share leave and because it is a complex system, Bragg believes families and some employers will need help to negotiate their way through it. She also reckons that as the battle for talent heightens, it presents an opportunity for employers to assert their family-friendly credentials. “There’s no question that increasing numbers of fathers are taking a more active role in caring for their children  and are considering the possibility of extended leave in their child’s first year,” she says. “So there are significant benefits for employers who are prepared to embrace the new model of leave and encourage men as well as women to take extended leave.”

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