Pairing her personal story with the rising sentiment that people should not have to choose between work and family, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently shared the company’s plans to expand generous family and bereavement leave policies. And there’s reason to believe employees will actually take advantage of them.
“Making it easier for more Americans to be the workers and family members they want to be will make our economy and country stronger,” Sandberg wrote on Facebook. “Companies that stand by the people who work for them do the right thing and the smart thing—it helps them serve their mission, live their values, and improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce.”
The policies themselves sound as good as the sentiments behind them. Facebook (FB) employees now have up to 20 days of paid leave to grieve the loss of an immediate family member and up to 10 days to grieve the loss of extended family members. In addition, Facebook employees will receive paid leave to care for family members, specifically up to six weeks of paid leave to care for sick relatives and three days of paid sick time to care for family dealing with short-term illness, like the flu.
Will employees actually take advantage of this kind of time off? That’s the question on skeptics’ minds whenever this type of “generous” paid leave policy is announced in such public fashion. It’s a fair question. Studies have shown employees are often reluctant to take advantage of family-friendly policies, like paid leave or flexible work, because they fear being perceived as less committed to their jobs or less valuable to their team.
The key to success around family-friendly policies like paid leave is a supportive organizational culture and buy-in from leadership. Facebook appears to have that.
In announcing the expanded paid leave policies, Sandberg shared how meaningful time off from work was for her following the births of her children and the death of her husband. “Amid the nightmare of Dave’s death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility,” she wrote. “I needed both to start my recovery.”
And who can forget CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s well-documented paternity leave? A C-suite that leads by example, as Zuckerberg and Sandberg have, is a great start to removing the stigma around family-friendly benefits. Hopefully, this type of highly visible top-down leadership empowers employees to take their leave or meet family responsibilities without fear of being passed over for the next big project or promotion.
Equally important, though, are the next steps. For benefits like bereavement and family leave to have the desired effect, they have to be a part of a bigger framework of benefits and initiatives that recognize the realities of today’s multi-generational workforce. With that in place, companies can begin to improve workforce performance and bottom-line results.
A few examples of this framework would be management training and putting best practices in place for covering leave and transition periods, or employer-provided backup care benefits, so parents have an option other than missing work when the nanny cancels or other unexpected care needs arise. These types of initiatives improve performance and prevent careers from getting handicapped by family care responsibilities. There’s data to back this up. Care@Work’s enterprise clients report backup care benefits allow employees to work as many as seven additional days per year. Etsy recently shared that nearly half of the employees who used its gender-neutral parental leave policy were promoted within the year. And a new report from the Boston Consulting Group found that paid family leave offers increased employee productivity and retention based on a study of 250 companies that offer the benefit.
These effects on engagement, retention, and productivity are not surprising. We are, in many ways, a nation of working caregivers. Today, about 70% of moms and more than 90% of dads are employed or actively looking for work, and 60% of families don’t have a stay-at-home parent. At the same time, 43.5 million adults provide unpaid care to a child or adult, according to AARP estimates.
As Sandberg put it: “At a time when nearly nine of ten working women in the United States have no parental or family leave, women make 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, and there’s no system of national paid leave, companies need to step-up and lead. I hope more companies will join us and others making similar moves, because America’s families deserve support.”
That said, it’s important to remember paid leave, whether parental, bereavement, or family, is not some magic elixir that can by itself improve performance and boost a company’s bottom line. But it is a valuable ingredient in a larger recipe for success. Even if your company is not at the size and scope of a Facebook, it may make sense to start incorporating these polices at a level appropriate to your business and then scale them as you grow. This activity will still provide a positive message to your employees.
At Facebook, a lot of the right pieces are in place, so there’s reason to be optimistic that the company’s new bereavement and family leave policies could work, just as their parental leave policies have. And it could work for other companies, too, but the leadership has to come from within.
Al Zink is SVP of Human Resources at Care.com.