This op-ed was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 7, 2015.
Netflix’s decision to offer employees unlimited maternity or paternity leave for one year to care for a new baby has earned praise, especially because so few such policies exist in corporate America. As the U.S. is one of only three countries that do not mandate paid family leave, Netflix has really advanced the national conversation on the issue.
Netflix even is offering the benefit to both new moms and dads — something very few companies do — thus making a clear statement that parenting is a shared responsibility. It is not asking employees to tap disability insurance but instead is covering employees’ full salaries. During their year with their baby, employees can leave the company, work part time, or even opt for flextime arrangements. I suspect, in the competitive Silicon Valley, other companies soon will emulate Netflix. Microsoft also has said it will extend paid parental leave to 12 weeks from the current eight — a far cry from Netflix’s policy, but an improvement nonetheless.
With praise, however, comes much valid criticism. Even when companies offer such valuable benefits, there is no guarantee that employees will use them. Subtle, unstated expectations about workplace performance, or perceived resentment from co-workers who can’t access the benefit, influence how employees use these benefits.
In a national survey, my colleague Shannon Johnson and I found that work culture is one reason workers don’t take advantage of such leave policies. This effect was even more pronounced when the worker was burnt out. Ultimately, these employees — often women — experience more work-life strain than other workers; they know they need to use the policy but feel guilty and beholden to their colleagues if they do so.
Cynics have claimed that Netflix’s decision is merely symbolic. Indeed, what does it mean to offer more time when so much leave in American companies goes unused? And a year’s leave neither addresses the ongoing needs of parents nor acknowledges those who have other complex family care needs, such as elder care.
The tech industry is known for innovative policies it needs to attract and retain talent, but other industries just can’t do that. Small and family-run businesses, which according to the U.S. Small Business Administration employ roughly half of the employees in the private sector, don’t have the capital to create extensive leave policies. A federally funded government program offering robust and creative policies aimed at valuing workers would go a long way to help prevent worker stress and burnout. (Stress-related disorders, including those related to work-life strain, cost American businesses nearly $300 billion each year, according to the World Health Organization).
If large corporations really want to help their employees and their bottom line, they need to make an effort to change the workplace culture — they need to support employees when they take leave and address the strain on others in the organization. The healthiest workplace cultures are those that put mutual respect and support into action for all workers.
Justin P. Boren is an assistant professor of organizational communication at Santa Clara University.