Why paid family leave is good business

Offering paid paternity/maternity leave is the right thing to do, period. But it's also a boon to businesses.

Credit: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

When I gave birth to my son, there were some complications. I'm not going to go into it, but he had to stay in the NICU for 12 days after he was born. I can honestly say they were the worst 12 days of my life. I think back to that time, and the only reason I emerged with my sanity (relatively) intact was that my husband was with me, 24/7, the entire time.

I was working freelance at the time, so I simply moved deadlines and told my clients I'd be taking some time off. My husband had initiated his two weeks of paid paternity leave the day our son was born, but he'd used up almost all of it by the time we actually got to bring the baby home. Thankfully, his employer understood and extended his leave period for another two weeks.

When we were finally all together under one roof (no, the hospital roof doesn't count), we focused on getting to know our son, figuring out his cries, establishing a routine, and I focused on recovering from a horribly traumatic, physically and emotionally exhausting pregnancy and a very scary birth experience. And we had the time to do that, without worrying that bills wouldn't get paid, or that my husband would lose his job, or that his hours would be cut.

I know we were lucky to have those benefits. I know we're lucky to have had that flexibility and lenience. I see so many families who aren't that privileged, and it infuriates me.

By now it should be common knowledge that the U.S. is the only first-world nation that does not mandate some sort of paid leave for mothers. Paid parental leave is often left up to individual, private sector employers -- but stats show that only 12 percent of workers report having access to these "benefits." When even puppies are mandated by law to stay with their mothers for eight weeks after birth, but laws aren't in place to provide the same protections for infants and their families, well, it seems our priorities are in the wrong place.

But it's not only mothers who need and want paid, job-protected parental leave. Dads are deserving of this time, too, even though cultural factors can negatively influence how much leave men take. "There's a major conundrum around this issue, especially for men. They really want to take leave and bond with their kids, but the culture is such that sometimes they feel they'll be seen as not committed to their jobs, and not committed to the success of the company," says Michael Marty, senior vice president and general manager of operations, payments and B2B at Care.com.

[ Related story: 10 tech giants leading the parental leave policies pack ]

Marty says that Care.com's clients understand that family-friendly benefits are key to fostering loyalty, engagement and greater productivity within their workforce, aside from it just being the "right thing to do." Care.com partners with at least five of the companies on Glassdoor.com's Best Places to Work list, and those companies say offering generous paid family leave cuts down on attrition and associated costs. It also enhances productivity by reducing stress, and lets workers focus on work since they aren't instead worrying about their family.

Recruiting millennials is a hot topic, and Marty says Care.com's clients are having better luck recruiting from this generation when they have policies that guarantee paid leave in place.

"Our own research shows that 60 percent of workers would leave their job for someplace that has better family benefits. That number rises to 83 percent of millennials. They're thinking about starting families, they're thinking about how they're going to manage financial stability, raising a family and even taking care of their own parents -- it's really important to them, so it's a great recruiting and retention tool and gives a great ROI on the money spent to put these policies in place," he says.

When my husband took his leave, he was lucky to have an understanding manager who extended his available time when it was needed. Changing workplace culture to be more accepting of paid family leave often starts at the top, with the executive leadership, like when Mark Zuckerberg very publicly took two months off from Facebook after the birth of his daughter.

"There was a collective gasp when everyone was talking about Mark Zuckerberg taking that much leave, but that's where it has to start, if you haven't built that culture from the ground up. Leadership has to set this in motion so that it's not just seen as 'acceptable' but it's seen as 'preferable,'" Marty says.

I'm not planning on having more children, even though CIO.com's parent company offers a generous paid maternity leave benefit. But I would consider getting a puppy. Or two.

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