Good family policy is good for business

9 February 2011

Rob Williams writes:

In March the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will publish a green paper on paternal leave. Thanks to Nick Clegg’s speech on 17th January we have a good idea of what it will say.  The right to request flexible working looks set to be extended to all employees, not just those with young children, and the green paper seems likely to propose that all but a small part of what we now call maternity leave should be transformed into transferable leave, giving parents the right to choose who should take time off work in the first year of the baby’s life.

Nick Clegg even proposed an increase in the current miserly two weeks of paternity leave, and described our current system as Edwardian.

Not everyone thought this was a good thing.  The UK media had no trouble finding business people eager to declare that these changes would spell disaster for british industry.

Their arguments boil down to a claim that giving more leave to fathers, and making the system more flexible, will reduce productivity and make it harder for us to compete overseas and damage the recovery.  This position makes little business sense.  There is a growing body of evidence that the current system overloads new fathers with the twin demands of work and family and leads to a loss of productivity, an increase in sickness absence, and higher staff turnover.  By contrast men who work flexibily are more productive at work rather than less productive.

And as for an extension of leave making us less able to compete – the proposals floated by the Deputy Prime Minister look pretty tame compared to the flexibility and fathers’ leave offered by our main competitors in Europe.  In fact, a quick look around reveals that those economies with a high level of paternity leave are growing at a much faster rate than us.  Whilst our economy shrank by 0.5% in the 4th quarter of 2010, in Germany, where fathers can take up to 28 weeks’ leave at full pay, growth is running at 3.6%.  In Sweden, where fathers could be off work on full pay for an eye-watering 40 weeks, the rate of unemployment was unchanged in January at 3.5%, compared to 7.5% in the UK.

If our economy is struggling to get out from under the recession, it has little to do with employees having children and it is facile for employers to claim that allowing parents time off to care for children leads to poor economic returns.  The truth is quite the opposite.  Where business and families make room for each other, they lay strong foundations for innovation and future growth.  I would rather business lobbies supported their members to be successful in the 21st century than spend their time defending an Edwardian system.

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