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Ask DadPad: What rights to leave and flexible working do I have?

Posted on 21st May 2021

Work life balance is so important. I knew this but it has been emphasised this last year. I would like to work from home more often so I can see more of my children and spend more time with them.

As we continue to come out of lockdown, and hopefully start to return a bit more to ‘normal’, a number of surveys and reports are being published about different experiences of the past 12 months.  It’s not escaped our notice that a number of these have focused in on parents who have had the opportunity to be at home and around their family a bit more than would otherwise have been possible.  We know this from the latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics which records that 36% of people did some work from home last year, whereas previously the figure was around 25%.

The impact of this on family life has also been recorded; for example, the Fathers Network Scotland 2021 Dads’ Survey (‘the FNS Survey’) found that 44% of dads have been able to spend more than 25 hours a week playing with or homeschooling their children.  This has given many parents (not just dads, of course!) a taste for greater involvement in the lives of their children, and the majority now want to change, with 67% of respondents to the FNS Survey stating that “the experience of living through the pandemic has changed the way they would like to parent in the future… Dads want to be there for school drop-offs and pick-ups, they want to be involved in their children’s education, they want more flexible working arrangements, and one dad even said that he is looking for a new job to enable him to do that.”  The quote at the top of this page – also from the FNS Survey – pretty much sums up the majority of the findings…

The Fatherhood Institute‘s Lockdown Fathers: the untold story report from May 2021 contains a vast amount of interesting data, including that, following lockdown:

  • 78% of partnered fathers indicated that they had spent more time with their children;
  • 65% felt that they now had a better relationship with their children – and those individuals were also more likely to report that their mental wellbeing was better;
  • 48% felt more competent as a parent;
  • 42% were better able to manage their tempers and keep calm around their children;
  • 51% felt that they now had a better understanding of their children;
  • 64% felt closer to their children; and
  • 57% felt better equipped to support their children’s learning and education.

Relationships with their partners were generally not harmed by the increased time at home, with half of the dads surveyed also indicating that they now had a better appreciation and understanding of what is involved in running a household and looking after children. Crucially, around 60% of the dads reported that they had an increased awareness of the importance of fathers spending time with their children.

This is fantastic news, as we know the huge benefits that can be gained by a family in having a positively-engaged and actively-involved dad.  However, a desire by dads to be more hands-on and involved in their children’s lives is not something new, and there is a whole host of published academic research which notes that work-family conflict is being experienced by dads as the traditional ‘male-as-breadwinner’ role continues to diminish.  Indeed, ‘The Millenial Dad at Work‘ research undertaken by the Daddilife.com website from back in 2019 reported that, of the 1,250 UK dads aged 24-40 that they questioned, 87% were “either mostly or fully involved in day-to-day parenting duties“, and a workingdads.co.uk survey – also from 2019 – found that 73% of dads were considering looking for a new job which would offer them greater flexibility.  More recently, research undertaken by the team at Flexibility Works established that over half (55%) of Scots were considering asking for more flexibility when restrictions lift, with more than a quarter (27%) stating that they will definitely be doing this.

So – whether as a direct result of the life changes experienced over the last 12 months, or simply because it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do – if you want to either explore the possibility of reducing or altering your working hours, or to take an extended period of leave, to spend more time with your family and readjust your work-life balance, what rights do you have to do this?

The good news…

The good news is that, as both a new dad or as an ‘established’ dad, the law already gives you rights to leave and/or to request flexible working.  We spoke to Nikki Slowey, the Director and Co-Founder of Flexibility Works, who explained:

While some companies offer enhanced pay and leave for new parents, those on statutory (legal minimum) levels would receive the following:

  • fathers are entitled to two weeks’ paid Paternity Leave at £151.97 a week;
  • Shared Parental Leave (SPL) allows couples to share up to 50 weeks of leave, with 37 weeks paid at £151.97 a week;
  • Maternity Leave allows mothers to take up to 52 weeks’ leave, with the first six weeks paid at 90% of the mother’s normal salary, followed by 33 weeks on £151.97.

In terms of flexible working, all employees – whether or not they are parents – have the legal right to request flexible working.  However, this only applies if they have been in their post for at least 26 weeks, and employers are only legally obliged to consider the request, not to approve it.

The reality…

Focusing firstly on the paternity/parental/maternity leave around the time of birth and beyond, we asked Nikki what the uptake of their rights was like amongst dads.  Nikki said:

For paternity leave, research from 2019 suggests that only around a third of fathers take the full two weeks’ leave.  For SPL, the government estimates that take-up among eligible couples is between 2% and 8%, but analysis by the Maternity Action charity suggests that take-up is only between 3% and 4%.

An article by Jon Taylor from 2019 noted that “the percentage of eligible men taking paternity leave has now fallen for four years in a row”, although the number of women taking advantage of their maternity leave rights is growing.  He suggests that this could “in part be due to the increasing number and percentage of men in forms of employment that lack the right to paternity pay, such as the ‘gig economy’ and other forms of self-employment“.

Further, figures from 2018/19 indicated that only 1% of eligible fathers had claimed SPL, and 2019 data suggests that only 2% of eligible couples had made use to the scheme. The use of the word ‘eligible’ is important here: as pointed out by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) back in 2015, around 40% of new dads don’t qualify for SPL, anyway.  For example, those dads whose partners are not in paid work, and therefore who do not have any rights to maternity leave or maternity pay, cannot share any leave with their baby’s dad.

Why is the uptake amongst eligible dads so low, though?  Research from 2018 by Gayle Kaufman suggested that there are four main reasons:

  1. Financial cost: according to Kaufman, the main reason why dads are not taking up their full rights to parental leave is that the level of statutory pay is too low, to the extent that many new dads choose to taken their second week of ‘paternity leave’ as annual leave instead, to overcome the financial issue.  The issue was explored by research from 2020 by EMW which said that – in relation to SPL – “few couples [were] willing to to see their primary earner’s income fall to little more than £600 a month“, instead preferring to take advantage of the better deal offered via company-enhanced maternity leave schemes.  Evolutionary anthropologist Dr Anna Machin has been quoted as having said that: “It makes me furious when the poor uptake [of parental leave in this country] is placed on the shoulders of men simply not being interested, because this is not the case.  For the vast majority of men it is not financially a possibility.”;
  2. Gendered expectations: the continued assumption – held by both parents – that mums would and should take the longer period of post-birth leave due to (a) the gender difference in earnings and (b) greater emphasis being placed on the importance of maternal, rather than paternal, bonding;
  3. Perceived workplace resistance: a fear from fathers that their employers would not be supportive of a request for a longer period of leave; and
  4. Policy restrictions: SPL lacks flexibility in practice.

Point 2 on this list, of course, resonates with topics that we have explored previously in our DadPad blog, including the need for greater equality in parenting and the myths surrounding bonding with your baby as a dad.

This low uptake undoubtedly indicates that the current system of rights for leave for new parents is in need of reform.  We know that there are enormous benefits – for baby, for dad and for the family unit as a whole – in having both parents able to spend time supporting each other in the early days of parenthood, alongside bonding and building a secure attachment with their baby; therefore, any system which appears to put barriers in the way of this happening definitely needs addressing.

For example, Frances O’Grady – Secretary General of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – was reported as saying in April that: “We need to urgently overhaul the parental leave system… Both parents should have time to care and bond with their baby, without having to transfer leave between them… Without meaningful reforms, many dads won’t be able to afford to take time off work when their kids are born. And women will continue to shoulder an unequal share of care and be penalised.

We asked Nikki – if she could be Prime Minister for the day (and, of course, she began by telling us that she’d be the first ever job-share Prime Minister, with her fabulous co-director, Lisa Gallagher!) – what changes she’d make to the current laws governing parental leave:

All new parents – regardless of whether they’re a mother or father – would be entitled to a significant period of paid leave after the birth, or adoption, of a child.  And I’d encourage employers to look to companies like Standard Life (soon to be known as Abdrn) which offers parents (both new mums and new dads) nine months’ fully-paid parental leave.  Not all organisations will be able to afford this.  But they should watch with interest and see how else they can support and retain talented employees.

These suggestions – ground-breaking as they may feel – would undoubtedly bring huge benefits to those companies who could afford to offer them.  Aviva, for example, offers an equal parental leave scheme to all its staff, regardless of their gender.  New parents are entitled to a full year off work following the arrival of a baby, with 26 of those weeks being taken on full pay.  Danny Harmer, their chief people officer, was quoted in The Guardian as saying: “Dads love it… the thing about equal parental leave is that it just changes the conversation about who is the primary and secondary carer; it changes the mindset around hiring. It nudges people away from some of the bias – and I think it’s probably great for families and communities as well.”  He continued: “Yes, it costs money. But surely if it evens out the playing field for talent, it is good for business.

Is it worth it as a dad?

The question of whether or not it is worth taking up your entitlement to either paternity leave and/or a share of SPL will obviously be for each family to weigh up and decide upon depending on your individual situation and circumstances.  However, it’s worth quoting from a couple of dads who have taken advantage of SPL to spend more time with their babies.

Firstly, Tom Ebbens – a senior coastal operations officer with HM Coastguard, who spoke with workingdads.co.uk earlier this month – describes his first six months of SPL as being “…brutal but priceless.” 

He had taken SPL after the birth of his first daughter, and was keen to do the same when his second daughter was born – and was incredibly glad that he did.  Baby No 2 arrived last autumn, in the middle of the pandemic, and was “not much of a sleeper“, plus they now also had a two-year-old to care for.  Not having family living close at hand, and without the usual support systems that would have been in place during ‘normal times’, Tom and his wife were effectively alone; therefore, “being on SPL and being able to do it together was really important.”

Tom commented that: “No-one wants to look back at these precious moments of their children growing up and wished they’d spent more time at work. Why not be at home watching your kids grow up and bonding with them if you can be? It’s not just being knee-deep in nappies; it’s going out as a family and having those previous memories.

Another dad who has felt the benefits of SPL is Ben Beazley, a manager with Aviva who took six months out of work as part of his employer’s equal parenting leave scheme (see above) and who said:

…these six months have been some of the best of my life. This quality time with Barnaby has been amazing, watching him change.”

Flexible working

Moving on to look at whether the take-up is any better in relation to flexible working, Nikki continued:

Our figures suggest that 59% of Scottish fathers worked flexibly before the pandemic.  Of fathers who couldn’t work flexibly, 63% said they wanted to.

Research published last November, however, found that 30% of fathers (compared with only 10% of mothers) believed that flexible working arrangements were not available to them. These views increased amongst dads working part-time (58%), and those working in lower supervisory and technical roles were more likely to believe that a reduction in their hours would not be available than by those in professional or managerial occupations.

We asked Nikki if she had any insight as to why this might be.  She said:

Our latest research shows the main reasons that fathers felt that they couldn’t work flexibly were:

  • 43% said their employer didn’t allow flex;
  • 32% said it wasn’t available for their specific role; and
  • 17% said flex wasn’t appropriate for the type of work they did.

In some cases, the barrier is simply a lack of knowledge.  Men – and women – often don’t realise they can work flexibly because it’s never been directly mentioned, even in companies that have pretty good practice.  Through our research, we’ve found examples where people have never worked flexibly, have never been directly offered flexibility and conclude (wrongly) that it must not be suitable for them or their role. They never ask, and so they never get flex.

Much more complex is the culture that still exists in some organisations where flexible working is seen as a sign of less committed workers, and where – in some cases – flexible workers are overlooked for promotion. This creates a negative cycle in which people then don’t ask for flex and don’t work flex, and flex never becomes normal.

Societal barriers still exist, too. Despite growing involvement from dads, women generally continue to take on the bulk of childcare, elder care and home responsibilities.  Our figures show that 23% of dads who work flexibly say that this is because of childcare responsibilities, compared with 39% of mothers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that dads don’t want to take on more family responsibilities. But the status quo – that mothers ‘need’ flexibility more than fathers – will make it harder for men to ask, and does nothing to address gender equality.

Men are more likely to work flexibility informally, with small, ad-hoc amendments to start and finish times so they can fit in family needs, whereas women are more likely to have formal flexibility included in their contract, such as working part-time. It seems that men are working flexibly, but it’s often under the radar.  We need to change the narrative – among employers and men themselves – to remind them that flexible working benefits the business as much as the employee and shouldn’t be taboo any longer.

Home working over the past year has enabled more parents to work flexibly, of course.  The ONS Survey reported by workingdads.co.uk in April found that many of those working-from-home started work slightly later in the day (around 10.15-10.45 am) than those who worked away from home, making up those hours in the evening.  They were also found to be taking more breaks, all of which – for example – enabled parents to take their children to and from school, spend quality time with them after school, and then catch-up on their working hours once their children were in bed.  From an employer’s point of view, there were many benefits found, too. As a dad who might be wanting to explore the possibility of flexible working with his employer, this blog post is definitely worth a read, as it provides an overview of the many benefits of the arrangement for both employer and employee. James Millar summed up the findings from the report thus:

For working dads the main takeaways from this comprehensive evidence are that working from home allows you to do as much work but in a more flexible way.  Employers get less sick absence, no drop in productivity and an employee who feels empowered and in control of their working hours and home life.

Overcoming the barriers

However, given that barriers still exist, preventing people from taking up their rights to request flexible working, we then asked Nikki what employers could do to overcome them:

One very easy step is simply to promote to all employees – regardless of age, gender or whether or not they are a parent – the flexible working options that they already have .  

Employers can also help normalise flexible working by modelling flex from the top down.  Sharing blogs by senior staff on how they work flexibly, or even just a director loudly saying ‘goodbye’ when he or she leaves early all helps to show other employees what’s accepted.

And normalise fathers working flexibly by sharing employee experiences.  This could be via regular short blogs, or internal events.

And, aside from barriers within employment itself, what else needs to change?

Outside of work, there’s still a culture among men that working flexibly isn’t for them.  For starters, the 59% of fathers who already work flexibly should say so when talking to their friends.  I’m sure it would encourage more men to ask for flex.

In addition, both parents should be entitled to a period of paid leave when their baby is born, or adopted.  This shouldn’t need to be shared. Both parents have an equally important role to play within the family, and this should be reflected at work.

Is change coming?

We finished up by asking Nikki for her take on the impact that this last year has had on both employers and employees with regard to flexible working:

Undoubtedly, the last year has been a real struggle. But flexing where – and when – we work has helped show employees and employers that we can work in different ways, and it has helped businesses continue to deliver for customers, despite the pandemic disruption.

Our research shows that more than half (55%) of Scots say they’re considering asking for more flexibility when restrictions lift, while more than a quarter (27%) say they’ll definitely do this.

On the employer side, three quarters (76%) credit offering more flexibility with helping the business survive the pandemic.

As a result of their Covid experience:

  • 61% of Scottish employers say they expect to offer more home working, even when restrictions life;
  • 41% expect to offer more flexitime; and
  • 41% expect to offer more informal flex, such as ad-hoc time off for appointments.

Almost two-thirds (61%) of Scottish employers said offering more flex allowed them to deliver for customers, despite the pandemic disruption, while 49% said it supported employee wellbeing and 44% said it reduced costs.

Regardless of Covid, more than two-thirds (67%) of Scottish business leaders said flex improved productivity, while 66% said it reduced sickness absence and 70% said it improved employee loyalty.

The pandemic has been a great ‘experiment’ for flexible working and has helped many employers see the benefits for their employees, as well as their bottom line. It seems certain more people will work more flexibly as a result. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any more bumps in the road.  But now we’ve seen how flexibility helped us weather the pandemic, we should embrace it for life.   

With thanks to…

Nikki Slowey, Director and Co-Founder – together with Lisa Gallagher – of Flexibility Works.  Established last year, FW is a social business working with Scottish employers, government and policy makers to support and develop more flexible workplaces.  Between them, Nikki and Lisa have around 13 years’ experience of working with employers to create more flexible workplaces.  Together with their small team, they provide insights and training for employers, and opportunities for organisations to share learning and examples of what’s worked well.  They’re on a personal mission to change working culture in Scotland, create a fairer and more flexible way that will benefit workers, not only today, but for generations to come.

James Millar, Editor at workingdads.co.uk, for kindly allowing us to quote from so many of his organisation’s brilliant blog posts on all aspects of fathers and flexible working.  Their website has loads of great advice on all aspects of employment rights for dads, including a template for a letter to your employer to request parental leave.

Katie White, Researcher in Organizational Pscyhology, for helpfully sharing links to related academic research and reading.

Further reading and references:

Burgess, A & Goodman, R [Fatherhood Institute] (2021): Lockdown fathers: the untold story [full report and condensed report]

Cook, R et al (2020): Fathers’ perceptions of the availability of flexible working arrangements: evidence from the UK

Daddilife.com – May 2019: The Millennial Dad at Work

Fathers Network Scotland – 25 March 2021: Dads Survey 2021

The Guardian – 26 April 2021: Shared parental leave: scrap ‘deeply flawed’ policy, say campaigners

The Independent – 08 July 2019: Fewer than third of new fathers take paternity leave, research suggests

Kaufman, Gayle (2018): Barriers to equality: why British fathers do not use parental leave. Community, Work & Family, 21:3, pp310-325.

Howlett, E – 07 Sep 2020: Shared parental leave uptake still ‘exceptionally low’, research finds

TUC – 06 Feb 2015: Two in five new fathers won’t qualify for shared parental leave, says TUC

Maternity Action – 15 February 2021: Honey, I shrunk the Shared Parental Leave take-up figures

Taylor, J – 08 July 2019: Less than a third of eligible men take Paternity Leave

workingdads.co.uk – 21 January 2019: Dads want more job flexibility

workingdads.co.uk – 20 April 2021: ONS home working data is a treasure trove for working dads

workingdads.co.uk – 10 May 2021: Shared Parental Leave was priceless for coastguard Tom