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The problems with Shared Parental Leave

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Lockdown 2020 and my wife and I were delighted to find out we were expecting our first child. 

I’m sure all expectant parents can relate to our excitement and anticipation in the months that followed as we began to grasp the magnitude of how our lives were about to change. In particular, we pondered the impact our new arrival would have on our careers and how to balance our professional and family responsibilities.

We had decided from the start that we wanted to play an equally active role as parents in our daughter’s life – without comprising our respective careers. Fortunately for me, I work for a company with a wide range of flexible working policies and benefits that aim to facilitate just that.

Cards on the table, it probably also helps that I’m an employment solicitor. Certainly, I was already aware of the legislative framework around the concept of shared parental leave (SPL), a policy that was introduced in the UK 2015.

Like me, you might have been forgiven for thinking it’s the kind of long-overdue policy designed to help equalise childcare in that often-overwhelming first year of parenthood that would already be well established five years on. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case, and the reasons are complicated. 


Employers and shared parental leave:

Are employers to blame for low SPL uptake?

Reform Shared Parental Leave, urges the TUC

Employers not telling staff about SPL


Many employers don’t yet understand how SPL works

What we discovered, in reality, was that very few employers – including my wife’s workplace HR team were familiar with, or had ever come across, SPL previously.

And that there is a general lack of understanding by employers and employees alike on the differences between SPL, parental leave and paternity leave, all of which are separate forms of family-friendly statutory leave regimes. 

SPL, as the name implies, allows parents to ‘share’ the responsibility of childcare and is designed to give them flexibility in the first year after birth or adoption. Under SPL, a mother must take two weeks of maternity leave after the birth, but can move to SPL for the remaining 50 weeks currently permitted under statutory maternity leave, 37 of which are paid.

A couple can share those 50 weeks as they wish, either in alternating blocks, or, say, 25 weeks together.

We decided that SPL was something we wanted to explore. As a first-time father in 21st-century Britain, I was fully on board with the concept, committed both to supporting my partner and to proving myself as an equal parent with equal caring responsibilities. And yet I couldn’t help feeling anxious about how others might react.

What would my colleagues really think about me taking SPL? And, more importantly, how might my decision affect my career?

 

Having a supportive employer certainly helps but read the small print

My wife and I approached our respective employers to discuss our intentions. My employer, Hill Dickinson, was very supportive of our decision, as were my colleagues, which made everything feel possible and was a huge relief. But it did make me very aware of how expectant mothers/adopters must always feel when placed in a similar situation.

Our daughter, Rosie, was born in February 2021. To help soften the impact on our careers, we decided that it would be best for us to take SPL in blocks. The arrangement allows my wife to return to work at times that suit her and also allows me to stay closely connected to my client bases (as I am typically only away from the business for a few weeks at a time).

I’m pleased to report that our decision has worked well to date. If you are in a similar position and are considering taking SPL, there are, however, a couple of caveats to be mindful of.

First, the legislation only permits employees to serve a total of three periods-of-leave notices and we interpreted this as three separate periods of SPL; and secondly, in accordance with the statutory framework, you need to serve eight weeks’ notice of your intention to commence SPL.

I am sure many reading this will agree that it can often be difficult to simply ‘down-tools’ and switch-off from work commitments, particularly for those working in professional services, and it’s important to be able to rely on other members of a team when you are away. This applies whatever type of leave you take, whether family-friendly, annual or another type.

Even so, there may be certain tasks that cannot simply be picked up by others so it was useful for me to be able to utilise some ‘SPLIT’ days (similar to ‘keep-in-touch’ days for those on maternity leave) during my first block of SPL, which helped with the demands of the role.

 

Returning to work

I returned from my first block of SPL in September 2021 to discover that I’m the first in my firm to have benefited from SPL. My overriding thoughts currently are these:

That being a parent is a full-time commitment and more, and while incredibly rewarding, it’s certainly not a holiday or a break. The demands of being a new parent stretch well beyond a typical 8am-6pm working day and I now truly understand for the first time why annual leave continues to accrue during periods of family-friendly leave – it’s tiring!

Secondly, the reason so few have taken up SPL (and are aware of the concept of SPL) to date is chiefly financial. Typically, maternity enhancements still far outweigh paternity pay, with payment for SPL typically paid at a statutory level only.

I have also noted in recent times (particularly in a post-lockdown societal workforce reconfiguration) that there is a trend emerging in certain businesses to enhance family-friendly leave policies. This is the case in sectors where employee retention is critical.

In my view, there is often limited opportunity for an employer to demonstrate just how valued employees are therefore any additional support during the transition to parenthood is a really positive way to do this. Furthermore, and it may seem initially counterintuitive, but if we are serious about addressing the gender pay gap and building a fairer society, organisations need to consider why it is that mothers bear the brunt of some level of career sacrifice during a baby’s developmental years.

With this in mind, it seems logical for us to encourage fathers to take on more child-caring responsibility and the medium of SPL enhancement could provide the answer to do so.

Mark Cranshaw is an associate with commercial law firm Hill Dickinson