Family-Centric Job Benefits Can Make Motherhood a Career Asset
I remember the day I decided not to go back to work. I was in the bathtub with my eight-week-old son, who was still nursing around the clock. Barely adjusted to the new emotional and physical demands of motherhood, I couldn’t dream up a world where I had the energy to drop my baby at day care, work all day, then stay up most of the night taking care of him. So I weighed the costs: Double my commute time, cut my salary in half, and risk my mental health, or sacrifice my career to stay home? In the end, I chose the latter.
If I’d stayed at my job, I would have been luckier than many. My employer offered three months of paid leave, plus a flexible schedule and a place to pump breast milk when I came back — perks very few American women enjoy. The US is currently the only developed country where full-time employees aren’t federally guaranteed paid maternity leave; as a result, only 15 percent of American workers are entitled to paid family leave by their employers. Many women even consider leaving the workforce altogether because their jobs don’t pay enough to justify the cost of childcare, not to mention the emotional and physical cost of separating from your baby before you’re ready (which one survey found is usually around six months).
Family-centric benefits like parental leave, subsidized childcare, and even a flexible working environment where moms can pump or take sick days are indeed costly for employers — but there’s evidence that the benefits of supporting parents in the workplace vastly outweigh the cost, for businesses and parents alike.
For starters, research shows that paid parental leave improves worker retention, increases employee productivity, and boosts employee loyalty and morale. Providing a place to breastfeed means women might miss less work, since their babies tend to be healthier. And there’s evidence that subsidizing childcare boosts retention and positively affects companies’ bottom lines.
While the economic perks of providing maternal benefits are clear, so is the cost of not doing so: For every 100 pregnancies, a company without maternal benefits could lose more than $9 million annually. Laura Handrick, Careers and Workplace Analyst at Fit Small Business, says failure to invest in maternal care can significantly contribute to employee turnover, which can get very expensive for businesses. Replacing a mom who doesn’t return after her maternity leave can cost as much as 200 percent of her salary.
“Hiring someone new is always more costly than investing in your current employees,” she tells us. “Not only do you lose all the employee’s invested knowledge, but you also have to hire someone else and retrain them, and it could take three to six months to get that person up to speed, which means compromised productivity.”
Further, missing the mark on supporting parents can also be damaging to a business’ image, affecting the quality of future hires and compromising sales.
“A brand reputation depends not only on how you treat your customers, but how you treat your employees,” Handrick says. “If a company is trying to build a brand with a client and has poor reviews or a bad reputation, that will damage your employment brand, plus make it harder to hire good employees in the future.
On the flipside, providing meaningful maternal care can attract employees, says Amy Henderson, founder of Tendlab, a consulting firm dedicated to helping companies create work environments that empower parents.
“There’s research showing that millennials will choose positions with a lower salary if they have family-friendly workplaces, even if they aren’t planning on having kids,” she says. “If the workplace is seen to support parents, all employees are more likely to stay and choose that company over another company that doesn’t.”
To mitigate financial loss and improve maternal health outcomes, Dr. Alexandra Sacks, MD, a reproductive psychiatrist and co-author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, recommends that employers consider providing extended, paid maternal leave. Often, the earlier a woman returns to work, the greater the risk for her mental health — and the business.
“It actually puts more stress on the workplace when we demand workers go back so soon after giving birth,” Sacks tells Brit + Co. “The earlier we require workers to return to work, the more their lives and bodies are in flux. So if moms had a little bit more time to adjust to new parenthood, they might need fewer accommodations by the time they have to go back to work.”
While women certainly deserve time to adjust into motherhood, Henderson has found that the character traits women develop while simultaneously working and parenting — namely the ability to develop broader, deeper relationships — can positively transform women’s careers, and their workplaces as a whole. “Possibly in part because of how hard it is, motherhood can make us better in a host of ways, developing capacities in us that enable us to do better in our careers.”
But a woman’s contributions to her place of employment are limited to the level of support she receives at work, Henderson’s research shows.
“Motherhood can have a very positive impact on our careers, but this is only the case if a mom is supported or perceives she is being supported,” Henderson says. In the absence of this support, whether at home or in the workplace, Henderson says these positive capacities actually degrade, and a woman is unlikely to thrive in the workplace — which costs everyone.
(Photo via Getty Images)