It isn’t just new parents who deserve paid leave

All of these people deserve paid leave.
All of these people deserve paid leave.
Image: Getty Images/Kevin Hagen
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In the US and most of the world, deep-pocketed employers try to lure the best and brightest employees with a patchwork of paid time off benefits, including various lengths of parental or bereavement leave, time off to care for elderly parents, and, in a tiny fraction of large firms, personal sabbaticals.

These perks are often advertised as proof that a company is inclusive, considerate of employees of all ages and in various phases of their careers, which is admirable.

But if a firm truly wants to make all feel welcome, there’s an easier, more elegant solution: Apply the rules of universal design and create one policy that serves everyone—in this case, a reason-blind paid leave option for all employees. Because the truth is, everyone needs a break, a lengthy one, sometime.

Let’s take the spotlight off of working parents

The wide adoption of generous, purpose-agnostic paid leave would eliminate a ton of paperwork while solving several other problems. For instance, it paradoxically would take pressure off new parents, the group currently most likely to be favored for paid time off. That’s because parental-leave policies bring attention to the special needs of working parents, and especially mothers, and erroneously imply that non-parents require less downtime or respite. Yes, parents need several weeks, months, or a year away from work to heal, rest, make arrangements for childcare, and adjust to a new life. But isn’t it slightly strange for employers to prioritize this need above that of another employee who might need a similar amount of time away, whether to serve as a caregiver to a family member or close friend, to pursue an outside interest that demands more time than can be found during off hours, or to look after their own health?

Lauren Brody, owner of The Fifth Trimester consulting company, and author of a book by the same name, believes companies should, as a rule, find ways to make benefits that help parents, like flexible scheduling, available to all. “What happens at companies where only mothers, or even only parents, have access to those conversations about flexibility, is that it has this unintended bad side effect of creating a bias against parents,” she says.

Women suffer most from this awkwardness, since they’re still more likely to ask for a perk like flex time once they’ve returned to work, and then be judged for it more critically than men. The same is true of paid leave: If a woman understandably fears that stigma or unconscious bias against working mothers might mean fewer promotions and lower pay in the long run, she might not take all the time that’s needed—and the time which data shows is healthy for parent and child—to protect her job.

Presumably, however, if all workers were equally entitled to leave for any reason, and truly felt there’d be no consequences attached to asking for it, the resentment toward parents and their special treatment would dissipate.

While we’re at it, let’s drop gendered terms like maternity and paternity leave

The gender-neutral language of reason-blind paid leave benefits would also be a welcome change from the terms that describe families now.

This is an issue that progressive employers have been grappling with over the past few years, says Brody. When she first began researching her book, she googled “maternity leave,” looking for news items, every day. Soon she noticed that companies largely moved away from offering only maternity leave, because it ignored the role a father might play in caring for a newborn, while also potentially excluding same-sex and other-gender couples. She added a search for “paternity leave,” which became increasingly popular, but still sounds gendered and inappropriate for same-sex parents, she notes.

Now, large and forward-thinking companies refer to “parental leave.” It’s a fair improvement, but there are still complications. Some companies now ask employees to make a distinction between “primary caregivers” and “secondary caregivers,” on the grounds that each group would receive different benefits, Brody adds. Unless someone is breastfeeding, she asks, how do you decide who is “primary”?

Her solution would be start afresh with “family leave,” while allowing employees to choose who counts as family, and accepting that “family” can be any age, and may or may not share any DNA.

That’s getting closer to ideal, but a completely unlabelled paid leave option would also make room for someone else: the individual employee.

Can we please treat all employees like adults with full lives?

A relatively tiny number of companies do offer a paid leave perk without any qualifiers. At the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), employees have the right to “open leave,” says Suzanne Goulden, the HR association’s benefits manager. The recently adopted benefit is meant to cover leave for vacation, personal illness, bereavement, military service, or any kind of caregiving, including newborn or elder care. And, she says, “So far, it’s working.”

Goulden believes that more companies are moving to the same type of universal leave category—whether with unlimited or a fixed number of days—because it’s also a way of treating employees “like the adults that they are.” A reason-blind leave policy signals to staff that they’re trusted, which has always been a priority for workers, and has become essential now that people can and do work from anywhere and at any time.

Cynthia Blevins Doll, an employment lawyer with Fisher Phillips in Louisville, Kentucky, ties the shift more specifically to millennials and their desire for freedom. “They are looking for any number of benefits that may or may not be because of caregiving responsibilities,” she says. “They like flexibility, they like flexible hours, they like paid time off. They like being able to work remotely,” she adds. With companies struggling to fill roles in today’s tight labor market, more of her corporate clients have been looking for ways to accommodate such requests.

The new normal

All of this may sound outrageous to professionals who came of age in the pre-internet era. It may seem as though today’s employees feel extraordinarily entitled. (And, to be sure, for now it’s still a privileged few who get to weigh the merits of frills like “unlimited vacation” or even just “paid time off.”)

Arguably, however, undefined paid leave is hardly as radical as some of the other developments that have reshaped work expectations, like constant connectivity. If you ask people to accept a longer work week, and late-night messages from the boss, shouldn’t you expect they’ll crave complete and sustained separation at some point? Is there really any question why the MetLife Employee Benefits Trends Study 2019 found the top-rated emerging benefit among all employees was unlimited paid time off?

The trend is also not surprising given what we’ve come to understand about the life-extending value of leading a well-rounded life, and what we know about the youngest workers in today’s economy. Though it’s always dangerous to generalize about a generation, polls tell us repeatedly that there’s some truth to what Blevins Doll suspects: Both millennials and Gen Z are devoted to “purpose” and want to live more consciously,  and they’re less inclined to accept a day job that excludes opportunities to volunteer abroad, serve a community, or develop a personal talent. Seeing the writing on the wall, Ernst & Young is now testing unpaid “life leave” in Australia.

Unlimited or open leave policies certainly have their detractors. Not knowing how many days off to ask for, many employees who have unlimited vacation are said to request less than they would under a traditional plan, critics say, citing some research. Another problem with unlimited vacation plans: you can’t roll over any leftover days or ask for a payout when you leave the company.

But advocates like Goulden note that time off is meant to be used, not banked—precisely to prevent issues like burnout, which can happen to anyone and often can’t be fixed with a one-week vacation.

To be sure, if a universal leave became the norm, it may cause headaches for employers looking to backfill staff or redistribute work, especially if several employees were to temporarily disappear at once. Then again, the workforce is changing, too, with more people looking to come and go from temporary positions. Besides, the promise of a one-size-fits-all leave seems worth the challenge. It may prove to be ingenious in its simplicity.