Thirty years after Sweden gave parents the right to share leave from work during the first year of a child’s life, the UK has finally caught up.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) came into force on 5th April this year as a provision for parents who want more flexibility when raising their children. The legislation aims to help women return to work following the birth or placement of a baby, while offering men the chance to be more hands on in their child’s early development.

“[It’s a] radical form of flexibility within that first year of a child’s life,” says Jennifer Liston-Smith, director, head of coaching and consultancy at My Family Care.

She explains, as part of HRreview’s Inside HR webinar on Shared Parental Leave in the real world alongside Emma Codd, managing partner for talent at Deloitte, and Carolanne Minashi, head of diversity, employee relations and engagement at Citi, that she believes the introduction of SPL represents a whole societal change towards greater equality.

“Managers need to be ready,” she says. “A lot of organisations are looking now at how [to] produce guidance for managers to steer the conversation, [creating] awareness and an opportunity for managers to exchange best practice.”

Best practice

The consequences of Shared Parental Leave can be complicated, with employers required to make decisions about how they approach requests for discontinuous leave, whether they will enhance maternity pay and how the guidelines for SPL will be communicated with their staff.

“There is a bit of best practice to be developed as an organisation,” says Liston-Smith.  “Managers being consistent… is the holy grail for many organisations.”

The panel agree from their experience with SPL so far that organising a general approach to likely requests is essential to ensuring fairness among workers, but in practice have also found it to be less of a challenge than expected.

“It’s all about conversation,” says Carolanne Minashi. “What we are trying to do is sit down with our employees at the discovery stage and try and be really grown up about [what they are] planning. It’s helpful for us to understand what the entire first year might look like so we’re not dealing with separate requests. We’ve had five applicants so far and we’ve got 25 more in the pipeline and it’s been fine.”

Challenges and opportunities

While effective communication has already proved beneficial in many cases when organising SPL requests, respondents to a recent benchmark study by My Family Care and said that the biggest challenge going forward is educating and engaging managers to support working parents, followed by communicating the legislation to employees.

“The biggest [challenge] has been communication,” says Emma Codd. “It’s quite complex trying to break it down into an understandable number of points for people who are not in HR.

“But overall we view it as a huge opportunity. We employ 14,000 people in the UK and do have a drop off with working mothers. We are working very hard to fix that and we see this as part of the fix – enabling fathers to share and getting that equality that we’ve been looking for.”

My Family Care’s benchmark study of 200 UK companies across a range of sectors suggests that many organisations around the country feel the same way, with the majority ranking themselves as very family-friendly when taking into account culture, benefits and flexibility.

“Too often we sense that the response to employment law changes is one that focuses on the challenges they present and the burden placed on HR,” says James Marsh, head of HR consulting at Symposium Events and chair of the Shared Parental Leave in the real world webinar. “The new SPL regulations are a chance for employers to better support their staff, enhance their employer brand and further improve the long term output of their talent.”

Workplace equality

Although the personal and professional opportunities for working parents entitled to SPL and their employers are clear, the panel agree that traditional workplace culture could be the “biggest barrier” to the successful implementation of SPL, with part of the challenge involving the mothers’ willingness to “let go”

Under the new legislation, all employed women will still be eligible for 52 weeks maternity or adoption leave, with Shared Parental Leave only created if the mother or adopter decides to end their leave early. Any remaining weeks of leave can then be shared with their partner.

“The mother or adopter still holds the key,” says Jennifer Liston-Smith. “There are potential challenges in relation to discrimination. But the department for Business Innovation and Skills have made it very clear in their technical guidance that you can operate a company maternity leave scheme separate from statutory Shared Parental Leave.”

While much of the decision about first year childcare still lies with the mother, SPL arguably offers more to dads than simply transferable maternity leave.

“One of the best things that’s come out of this is the normalising of being a dad,” says Carolanne Minashi. “And the giving permission to say ‘actually this is open to you if it’s right for your family’. [There’s a] positive feeling that it’s possible and accessible.

“In the nation there’s a change around parenthood. I think what this policy, or what the legislation, is able to do is unlock a new style of parenting that I think our younger employees want. That trend transcends boundaries of what industry you’re in and what job you have. We’ve got this new generation of parents who want to experience a much more equal way of working with each other as co-parents.”

To find out more about Shared Parental Leave in the real world, listen to the webinar here.

See the results of My Family Care’s benchmark survey here.

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