Extended Maternity Leave and Office Morale

A few weeks back on The New Yorker website, Jill Lepore answered questions about her article Baby Food, which explored the history and cultural implications of pumping breastmilk.  I had a few issues with the original article, which I’ve discussed here and here.  By and large, the questions seemed like heavily curated softballs to me, but there was one that I thought was worth exploring further:

Do you think that the recent campaigns for breastfeeding could eventually lead to longer maternity leave for mothers in the U.S., or lead to a legal mandate for part-time work for a year for mothers who would prefer it? My company refused to allow me to work part-time for a year so I could nurse my four-month-old more frequently. The reason? Morale in the office would suffer if new mothers were allowed to work part-time.

Lepore expressed sadness and dismay at this woman’s story, and part of me agrees.  It is exhausting to keep breastfeeding going and work full-time, and it would help many women keep nursing if they could work part-time or take a leave of absence.  On the other hand, I can easily see why a company would deny this request.

There are financial costs associated with longer maternity leave, but that’s not what this company is really addressing.  What the poster says is that the company wouldn’t give her the leave because others in the office would be bitter, angry, or jealous.  Unfortunately, I think this is often a very real concern; when someone is granted extended leave the following happens:

  • Work is redistributed. This can be great for junior staff who are given new opportunities and responsibilities.  It can also be a nightmare for those who are already overworked, and may have their own families.  Many offices, especially during times of recession, are already spread thin; granting extended leaves can push colleagues to their breaking points, damaging morale.
  • It feels unfair. For employees who may never have children, extended parental leave and part-time work benefits, feel like a special perk.  Those without kids ask why they can’t take a leave to take care of an elderly or sick parent or address some other major life event.  Anyone could probably make a good case for why they need an extended leave of absence.  On the other hand, taking care of children and families confers long-term benefits on society as a whole.
  • It affects continuity and institutional memory. Losing a good employee for three months can be rough; losing them for more than that creates a hole in the company that can damage daily operations.  Good planning can limit the chaos, but even shifting a key staffer from full- to part-time work may lead to frustrating information gaps.

Sometimes people forget that unpaid leave is not “free” to your company.  It costs money to hire replacements and pay overtime to colleagues who have to step in; indirectly, it’s likely to result in a loss of departmental knowledge.  On the other hand, I have no doubt that these are issues that our best management experts can help to overcome.

In fact, the Obama administration has made expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) a priority, and it’s likely that more and more research will be done to address these challenges so that children and mothers are better supported.  From an economic perspective, smarter, healthier, well adjusted kids and families create a more robust workforce, and that’s good for everyone.

There’s one other elephant in the room: if longer leaves or part-time options were mandated by the government, would it be harder for women of child-bearing age to get good jobs?  This may be part of the reasons why American companies have a far greater number of female executives than their European counterparts.  I worry about backlash on this that could set women back, and wonder about solutions.

Are there ways that some of you have made longer leaves or part-time more acceptable to your employers and colleagues?  Do you feel that women could be set back by the possibility of greater family leave?

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Filed under Breastfeeding and Pumping, Management, News, Work

4 responses to “Extended Maternity Leave and Office Morale

  1. Interesting points. When I talk to people here in Australia about breastfeeding, we often tsk tsk at the relatively low breastfeeding rates in the US and usually cite ‘poor maternity leave entitlements’ as the main cause. Of course this is a simplistic view of what is a more complex matter than that but I do think that the norm of having a good chunk (usually 12 months) of unpaid leave available means that more Australian women take longer maternity leave and so more feel confident in establishing breastfeeding.

    You are right in wondering whether this has a cost, though – Australian mothers are underepresented in the workforce compared to the US and many other countries. Comparitively large numbers here never return to work after having children, or if they do, return part-time. In general here we tend to be behind in terms of having women in positions of power. I’m sure some or all of your misgivings listed in your post are at play there.

    I’m disinclined to blame maternity leave though. An inflexible workplace culture based on the assumption that workers are male, have a linear career trajectory and don’t need time off for childbearing, is the real culprit.

    Also – breastfeeding can increase productivity because mothers need fewer days off to care for sick children if their children have stronger immune systems than their formula-fed peers. And if women end up leaving the workplace for good because they can’t cope with inflexible work hours on top of motherhood, then institutional memory is far more adversely affected than if they work part-time for a while or take a few months off.

    How to effect cultural change though… that’s a tough one!

  2. Pingback: FMLA law Family Medical Leave Act update, Latest cases on FMLA Law : FMLA Law News Update Feb. 26

  3. Anonymous

    Because I have a 9-month contract and I my child was born right at the end of the year, I was very fortunate to have a 6 months leave after my child’s birth. Even though part-time help was hired to cover some of my duties during the three months of official FMLA leave, many of my most over-worked co-workers had to cover my upper level tasks.

    For me and my colleagues, I remember thinking that it might be better for my organization if my leave had been 12 months because then it would have been easier to higher an intern seeking experience and who could be trained to cover more of my work while I was out of the office.

  4. Pingback: The Best Mother’s Day Gift: Maternity Leave « The Mama Bee

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