Work Life Balance. The Four Trimesters

Published: 11/11/2021

What are the challenges for working parents during this universal yet deeply personal time of their lives?

Having a child in itself is the most altering life event. Each milestone of expecting a child: pregnancy, childbirth, recovering from childbirth, and the early stages of looking after a newborn has its own unique challenges. And one which is often overlooked or its value underestimated - the return to work.

According to the University of Bristol, fewer than 1 in 5 of all new mothers in the UK, and 29% of first-time mothers return to full-time work in the first three years after maternity leave. This falls to 15% after five years. Furthermore, 17% of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth.

Three years after childbirth, only 28% of women are in full-time employment, compared to 90% of new fathers. And new fathers are two times more likely to have gotten a promotion or moved to a better job following the arrival of a child, whilst women who take a career break are three times more likely to return to lower paid roles or have lower responsibility jobs.

It’s no wonder that childbirth is the biggest driver of the gender pay gap.

First Trimester

The first three months are usually pretty miserable. Severe fatigue, morning sickness (for the unlucky ones this goes on for longer) impacting productivity and engagement, or leading to sick leave / absences which may damage the employee’s record. Pregnancy loss is also a reality for many working employees.

Second Trimester

For most, this is the golden period of pregnancy, and that also means it’s the best time to plan and prepare. Not just for the arrival of the baby, but for managing the return to work. This can lead to anxiety around change and the implications for career progression can become acute. Expectant parents will have many questions: how to manage leave (start date, duration, staying in touch, planning the return to work); managing the physical return to work; and coordinating their careers and leave periods. 

Third Trimester

Back to fatigue, but also reduced mobility and antenatal appointments to attend. Employers are legally required to allow time off for these appointments, but if there are complications additional leave is required which negatively impacts their employment records. It is possible to go on maternity leave early - the earliest you can start being 11 weeks before the due date, but this would then obviously reduce the time you can spend with your newborn.

Fourth Trimester

The baby has arrived, and the real fun has just begun. As with many other life changes, this can alter the way you think about your work. In the UK, the costs of childcare can be prohibitive, in addition to being complex to work out and manage on an ongoing basis, and very emotional. These factors combined, and a desire to achieve a better work / parenting balance, makes many parents (mainly mothers) decide to change their working patterns, or not return to work at all. If they do decide to return, 90% of mothers feel that they were not given formal support during this period, and 37% felt so isolated and unsupported that they wanted to resign.

The Evolution of Parental Leave in the UK

Parental statutory rights in the UK provide one of the longest maternity leaves available; but that in itself is not enough. 

First, there was Statutory Maternity Leave (SML) and Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) - as of November 2021, this is leave for up to one year, and pay that equals 90% of employee wages for 6 weeks. Thereafter it’s £151.97 (or 90% whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. 

Subsequently, progressive employers started offering enhanced maternity leave, which meant full pay for periods of up to 6 months. 

Next was the introduction of Statutory Paternity Leave and Pay in 2003. Although the idea was commendable, it did little to address the gender imbalance - fathers are entitled to 2 weeks of pay (also at 90% or £151.97) compared to the 39 weeks that mothers could collect. 

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Pay (ShPP) has been one of the largest developments during the last decade. Now, parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave, and up to 37 weeks of pay, regardless of whether they had the baby, or if they went through adoption and surrogacy. 

Around since 2015, Shared Parental Leave has come under fire for being fundamentally flawed and seemingly ineffective with extremely low take up rates - only approx 2% of eligible couples actually take advantage of SPL. We can speculate why - £151.97 per week is very low, especially as compared with the enhanced maternity leave now offered by many companies. And thus continues the trend of women taking the brunt of childcare responsibilities, which often impacts their career progressions negatively.

Fortunately, there is an emerging trend (particularly during 2021) of companies offering equalised enhanced leave, pay and other supportive benefits, for both men and women which has been making waves in the recruitment and retention of parents.

So, What are Progressive Employers offering?

Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave

Company leave policies and packages vary, and each will offer a different level of support over and above the statutory levels. The primary differences of packages being offered are the length of (fully) paid leave, varying from three months to up to a year and the rate of equalisation between mothers and fathers, as well as those who have adopted or have had a child through surrogacy.

The most progressive employers offer the same package, regardless of the length of service, whether they are the mother or father, or if they go through adoption or surrogacy.

Tier 1 offerings for employees

Netflix leads the way with one of the most generous parental leave policies in the world - as much time off during the first year, and fully paid. This is a part of their phased return to work policy which means you can choose to return full-time, part-time or not at all during that first year.

Accenture follows closely, with equal access to 32 weeks of fully paid leave. And these policies are applicable to anyone who is becoming a parent, regardless of how they become a parent or their gender. 

Other notable mentions are Aviva, M&G (both offer 6 months full pay, equal access), Unilever (16 weeks’ paid leave, equal access) and Etsy who offer 26 weeks’ parental leave for all employees which can be used over two years, plus a stipend for adoption / surrogacy costs, and parents’ rooms. Spotify also offers six months of paid parental leave, in addition to childcare subsidies and emergency care.

Vodafone offers 16 weeks paid leave, equal access regardless of gender or length of service and a paid phased return where they can work the equivalent of 80% of their normal working week, but have full pay for up to 6 months.

Tier 2 offerings for employees

Many other companies are still offering favourable maternity leave, like Transport for London (26 weeks fully paid maternity leave), Deloitte (16 weeks of paid maternity leave, 10 additional weeks at 80% pay) and UKFast (16 weeks maternity leave on full pay). 

Other benefits for new parents

Other benefits which might be included in the package, or standalone include additional help with doulas and night nannies (provided for by Partum Health), 2 weeks disability leave before due date (Microsoft) and parenting support groups.

Some companies would even pay for the cost of a night nanny, like Vitruvian which pays £1,000 for a night nanny. Others, such as Cleary Gottlieb, will provide access to 1:1 virtual consultations and follow up support on a breadth of newborn and expectant parent topics from fertility advice to sleep therapy (provided for by myTamarin).

Who are the benefits providers?

The benefits around leave and pay are partially statutory - at least in the UK - and the bulk is covered by companies’ internal policies as outlined above. 

However, there are benefits providers that will help with additional content, education, workshop, coaching (both for expecting parents and their managers) or help with the newborn baby.

CircleIn offers content support, including in other areas such as the menopause and mental health. Clients include Universal, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, Coca Cola, Audi, Atlassian, EY LLP, Ashurst LLP, and Mondelez International. Partum Health delivers convenient care from birth doulas, postpartum doulas, lactation consultants, physical therapists, and mental health providers, as does myTamarin who offer virtual or in person support on the full spectrum of expectant, new and seasoned parents. Proactive support is enabled with 24/7 messaging, digital patient education, and community events for parents. 

"For companies focused on retaining parents in their workforce, there may be no greater opportunity than providing support for a great 4th trimester. The weeks and months following birth are a time of major transformation for most families, with a range of physical, mental, emotional, and practical needs arising. Without proper support these needs not only create challenges in the 4th trimester, but they also continue if and when parents come back to work” - Meghan Doyle, CEO of Partum Health.

How can employers support working (or expecting) parents and make Family + Work really work?

Parental leave (especially maternity leave) can often be viewed as a problem to solve for a business, and an employee’s true value is overlooked. The time and resources required to build a happy workforce is minuscule in comparison to what it would take to start over again with finding a replacement. Research shows that countries who have childcare policies such as paid parental leave (like Norway and Hungary) have much happier parents than their non-parent counterparts (parents from Australia and the UK are less happy). 

Taking care of parents has a positive twofold effect on businesses and reversing the gender pay gap - seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it?

Given the progress made with enhanced maternity leave, and enhanced shared parental leave, companies are now needing to compete on other benefit offerings, such as doulas, night nannies, maternity nurses, virtual newborn support to differentiate themselves from other potential employers. If you really want to be up there as the best place to work, that is how you can make yourself stand out.

Recommended Reading

Shared Parental Leave Deeply Flawed 

Shared Parental Leave is Weird Paternity Leave? 

Women Much More Likely to Give Up Paid Work 

Shared Parental Leave Uptake Exceptionally Low

Women More Likely to Give Up Work Despite Earning More

Women Less Likely to Progress at Work After Maternity Leave

Less Than 1 in 5 Women Feel Confident about Returning to Work

Best Companies to Work for if You're an Expectant Parent

Using Surrogates & Donors - Your Rights

Dad-Friendly Companies

The Best Workplaces to Start a Family

Best UK Companies for Maternity Leave

Know Your Rights - Surrogacy

Etsy's Gender Neutral Parental Leave Policy Seems to be Working 

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