Working Parents: Paid Parental Leave Affects Your Happiness

mother and father working at the breakfast table with their son

Parents working at the breakfast table with their young child | Source: iStock

Savvy job seekers know it’s wise to look at both salary and benefits when weighing offers. With perks ranging from in-office rock climbing walls you see at some startups to free food — the extras can mean the difference between loving and loathing a job. Interestingly, these flashier offerings may not matter nearly as much as paid parental leave and other family-friendly offerings for those with kids. According to a study set to be published in September, parents in countries that don’t prioritize such policies fall far lower on the happiness spectrum than their child-free peers.

For this study, researchers compiled available data from 22 different countries, finding supportive policies, including paid parental leave, paid sick and vacation days, and a flexible work environment, matter hugely when it comes to happy mothers and fathers. Sociologist Jennifer Glass, one of the study authors, said, “What was so stunning was countries high on the policy index, in the top half, we see virtually no happiness gap.” As for those who fall low on the index, the opposite is true. “It really does help us, in broad strokes, distinguish between countries that are providing that crucial policy net for parents and those that aren’t,” Glass added. Sadly, the U.S. falls among those that aren’t cutting it. We have the largest happiness gap between those with children and those without due to lagging family benefits in the workplace.

But could this really be true in the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries in the world? You bet. “It’s just something that our country and our culture haven’t prioritized in public life,” said Phoebe Taubman, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, a legal advocacy group supporting workplace family policies. Things are changing, but it’s been a slow, state-by-state process so far.

Mother with child in front of computer

Smiling mother works at home with her daughter | Source: iStock

This also complicates things a lot when employees cross state lines. For example, Taubman explains some people who live in New Jersey and work in New York expect to benefit from the former state’s paid parental leave law. “Whether or not you qualify for these benefits is dependent upon who you’re working for,” Taubman said. “If your employer is based in New York, then you can’t take advantage of the New Jersey law.” And things are even more complicated for employers with workers in multiple states. For them, establishing company-wide standards is a nightmare.

When you see just how much workplace flexibility matters, it makes us seem even more behind the times. Research published in the American Sociological Review found greater flexibility and support from supervisors decreased stress and burnout among employees while improving their job satisfaction. And this applies to all workers, not just parents. Even employers have something to gain. Published in 2014, the National Workplace Flexibility Study indicated many managers reported improved communication, interaction, productivity, and customer service when employers were granted a less rigid work environment.

Taking all of this into consideration, you have to pay attention to the details when weighing job offers. And this goes beyond what the papers say. “It’s also about the culture that the employer propagates,” Taubman said. While this can be trickier to figure out, she suggests reaching out to other people aside from just the interviewer. “Ask about how the employer deals with people who have these kinds of needs outside of the workplace and how the policy plays out in the culture of the organization,” she said.

mother helping child in blowing her nose

Mother caring for her sick child | Source: iStock

And don’t forget about the fine print. Sick leave may or may not cover an illness other than your own, which can be a serious headache for parents. “Kids get sick a lot and you’re probably going to end up needing that time for them more than for your own illness,” Taubman explained. You should also look into backup childcare, which some employers have begun to offer in the event an employee’s usual caretaker or facility can’t accommodate their child.

Since so few people have such great benefits, partnering up with other parents can be a great way to make your needs heard. A Better Balance has helped parents craft memos stating their needs, which they can then share with employers. “Speak to HR. Argue on behalf of these polices and say why it would be good for the employer to try them out,” Taubman offered.

These details with specific employers are really just the start, though. In order to get parents and non-parents on the same happiness level, focusing on individual companies is thinking too small. “It’s like saying you’re going to cure smog in L.A. by not using an outdoor grill,” Glass said. “It’s not going to happen.”

In order to make any sort of lasting impact, both Glass and Taubman think parents need to get involved in some level of advocacy.  “This is really a political issue,” Glass said. “I’m hoping it encourages parents to vote in their interest.” This means getting familiar with elected officials, figuring out what policies they support, and demanding changes when they’re needed. “If clearer polices and more supportive workplace policies support happiness, it also reduces stress,” Taubman said. “And that helps everybody.”

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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