Parental leave part of a bigger picture

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The employee benefits conversation often revolves around health plans, 401(k)s and a host of voluntary benefits. But somewhere along the way it seems we’ve lost sight of one of the most obvious and universally appealing workplace benefits: paid parental leave.

It’s hard to believe, but the United States is the only developed country that does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave. (Paternity leave is even less common worldwide.) A Pew Research Center report ranks the United States dead last out of 38 countries in government-supported time off for new parents.

Even at companies that offer such benefits, it’s not always easy for employees to use them. As with many time benefits, there can be a stigma attached and fears of repercussions. That’s especially true for fathers, who historically have just a couple of days with their newborn before heading right back to the office. That puts more pressure on women to put their careers on hold (a point I personally find infuriating).

A recent survey by consulting firm Deloitte found that 36% of men won’t take advantage of parental leave offered by their companies “because they feel that their position could be in jeopardy.” More than half of male respondents (57%) said they believed “taking parental leave would show a lack of commitment to their work.”

But are these sad statistics finally turning around?

Slowly but surely, a handful of companies — including EY and Bank of America — have enhanced their policies, with men also getting an extra push from employers to take time off.

See also: Why more employers are offering paid parental leave

These companies follow streaming giant Netflix, which famously announced last year a new policy allowing employees — both men and women — to take unlimited paid parental leave for the first year after a child is born or adopted. Those policies, of course, aren’t the standard — and never will be — although many people would like to see it. But headlines, I think, can help. Continued talk about proposed legislation regarding parental leave policies can help, too. A new bar, perhaps, is being set.

“Many employees, male and female, are coming to expect the flexibility to support caregiving and family needs, and employers can help by ensuring their people are not stuck deciding between their job and family,” says Deepa Purushothaman, a principal at Deloitte Consulting and national managing principal of Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative.

Here’s the thing about parental leave — it’s part of a bigger issue of this beloved work-life balance we so often hear about. Mike Preston, Deloitte’s chief talent officer, agrees, saying: “While parental leave is important, it’s just one facet of the larger issue of work and well-being. Benefits are great, but work environment matters just as much. Businesses need to cultivate a culture where people feel comfortable doing what it takes to be their best selves and honor their priorities — at work and at home.”

Benefits are about more than just dollars and cents. They are about what an employer can do for employees so that they don’t just feel like worker-bees, but as people who matter. It’s something employers need to consider when they think about their culture and their benefit offerings — or risk falling behind.

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