Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
September 19, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

Some companies are rolling back the more generous parental-leave policies they implemented over the past two years. Others are considering or doubling down on return-to-office mandates, a blow to the flexibility that can make work more sustainable for parents and caregivers.

To better understand the impact of the latest developments, we reached out to Lauren Smith Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester and author of the book by the same name. Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s been reported that some organizations are resetting parental leave back to their pre-pandemic norms. Are you seeing any similar rollbacks right now of institutional support for caregivers?

I wish the headline on those stories had been, ‘We really need federally protected paid leave because it shouldn’t have to be on the private sector to determine this.’

The numbers are real, but there are nuances that haven’t been discussed in the media reports about the decreasing availability of parental leave that paint a more accurate picture. What’s also happening—and it’s important to say that is not an excuse, but it is an explanation—is that employers are becoming more sensitive to making their policies inclusive. As people are making their policies more inclusive of different ways to build a family, and trying to be more inclusive of the different stages of caregiving, including elder care, including benefits for parents who have older children, children with disabilities, spousal care, self care, surrogacy benefits, egg freezing, the money’s all coming from the same pot. They’re trying to make things fair and inclusive for everybody, but they’re not doing it with more funding overall. And ultimately it’s not good for parents, because we know research shows that the inflection point of becoming a parent is really a make-or-break point for a lot of people in their careers about whether or not they’re going to keep going in the workforce.

The big point I want to make is that when you claim that you are diminishing one group’s access to a benefit for equitable reasons, because you want to even things up, that’s fine if that group already had or exceeded the amount of humane benefit that they needed. But in reality, we know that all of the research shows that six paid months is the minimum that protects mom’s mental health, mom’s physical health, partner’s bonding with the baby, baby’s likelihood of getting all their vaccines on time.

As a culture, 12 weeks is the number that we’ve normalized because of FMLA, which stipulates that you have the right to an equal job to be held for you for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. When you look at the states that have started to roll out paid leave, and when you look at the companies that have adopted it or have rolled it back, everybody seems to coalesce around 12 weeks. And 12 weeks doesn’t mean anything developmentally in terms of what’s happening with the baby or what’s happening with the birthing parents’ body. Babies aren’t built to be sleeping by then. The new American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations would have birthing parents offering breast milk until two years. They have a recommendation that the baby sleep in the same room as an adult for the first six months.

And yet everyone’s like, ‘Did you get your whole 12 weeks?’ If I hear that phrase, it just makes me want to throw something, because it’s made a whole generation of mothers think that something’s wrong with them if they don’t feel back to normal by like 12 weeks plus one day. And in reality, very few people can actually afford to take three months of unpaid leave. So they’re taking a whole lot less and it’s having all kinds of bad health outcomes for families.

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On the other side of things, are there any gains in employer support from the past two years that you see sticking around for the long haul?

Two main things. The childcare industry crisis is terrible, but the attention on it has really helped employers see so clearly that without childcare, their employees can’t operate at full capacity. There’s a return on investment of offering a childcare stipend, backup childcare, all kinds of things that sound like bells and whistles, but that are actually vital for parents to be able to have in order to do their paid work effectively. They’re not standard yet, but in some fields like big law and tech, if you don’t have a backup daycare, you’re behind. You’re not going to attract and retain employees who are fantastic. Your number of women in leadership is going to plummet.

The other thing that I’m seeing is that people are starting to adopt ramp-up programs and ramp-down programs for people to come in and out of family or medical leave, which is where you protect someone’s income, knowing that their deliverables, their output, however you measure it is going to be prorated as they steer step back into their job.

We’re now past the Labor Day inflection point that a lot of organizations were using to kickstart their return-to-office plans. What guardrails can teams or leaders put in place to make sure that any existing culture of flexibility for parents is preserved in the move back to in-person work?

Helping everyone on a team understand the terminology. Giving people a term like proximity bias helps you look out for it. Ten years ago, people weren’t talking about implicit bias. Now we know what that is, so you’re likely to be more sensitive to it and thoughtful about it. So some of it is really about education and assuming that we’re all biased, and we all need to help people understand that they should be open about the mistakes that they make.

The other lesson is to start measuring and rewarding anything that your employees do that is retention-building. If they’re involved in employee resource groups, give them resources and reward them and make sure that that comes up in their annual reviews. When you have a new parent leave, when you add up the cost of replacing them, what often doesn’t get measured is the morale. What happens to everyone they work with? How do you avoid having everybody then take on so much more work and get burned out, especially in a time when they know the word burnout and they’re really sensitive to it? The investment in keeping someone and in rewarding your employees for retention-building, mentoring, all of the soft-skills stuff, really will pay off.

For employees, be deliberate about figuring out what parts of the last two years worked for you. You’re not going to be able to hang on to every single one of them, but you can prioritize a list of two or three or four that let you, at the end of the day, feel like you had a satisfying day in both your unpaid and paid work. You are the one who’s going to know best what it is you need. So you have to see it as part of your job to actually communicate those needs.

Read a transcript of our conversation, including how to incentivize participation in employee resource groups and how leaders can better understand the needs of parents on their team, and forward this to someone in your life who’s juggling caregiving and work.

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