Netflix recently made waves when it announced it will offer new parents an entire year of paid leave. Most of the ensuing discussion centered around the length of time the company was offering parents to stay home with their newborns. Less discussed was the structure, or lack thereof, the company will allow parents in their return to work.
The amount of time Netflix is offering its employees is indeed notable. In giving an entire year of paid leave, Netflix arguably positioned itself as the most progressive workplace in America in this particular sphere. Whereas in every other developed nation (and in all but three countries in the world), new parents are guaranteed paid leave for a certain period of time after the birth of a child, in America just 21 percent of employers offer any paid time off, something they are in no way required to do (though a few states offer limited, partially paid leave funded by a state insurance program). Of workers that receive paid time off, many only receive a portion of their salary. The limited data tracking the duration of time off for those receiving paid leave suggests the average is around four to seven weeks. A year of paid leave in America is simply unheard of.
Tech companies of the Silicon Valley world tend to be the most generous, and this no doubt is in part due to fierce competition to attract top-notch employees. Almost immediately after the Netflix announcement, Microsoft bumped up its maternity leave policy. As if to distinguish itself from Netflix, Microsoft also offered moms-to-be two weeks of paid leave before their due dates, “to manage the physical impact that often comes with late pregnancy and to prepare for the upcoming birth.”
For most women who are lucky enough to get leave, be it unpaid or paid, the transitions from work to birth and life with a newborn and then back to work are violent ones. More than half of women are still working within a month of their due dates, which is one of the most physically exhausting times of motherhood. Working late into pregnancy takes a toll on both mom and baby; indeed, a study in the Journal of Labor Economics found that working past the eighth month of pregnancy had the same negative effect on the baby’s birth weight as smoking. Likewise, returning to work too early takes a physical, mental, and emotional toll on the mother and child.
Few deny the health benefits of having more time to bond with a new baby; most debate the economic advantages versus the costs and potentially adverse affects on women’s employment opportunities. But very little attention has been focused on the idea of allowing moms to ease into motherhood and rest during the finals weeks and months and pregnancy, and then return to work gradually following birth. Women who are self-employed are more likely to enjoy slowly turning the dial down and slowly turning it back up. I am one such woman. I spent most of the final weeks of my last pregnancy in bed watching…Netflix. About four weeks after my son was born, I began answering emails and phone calls. By two months I was working five or so hours a week. By three months, that number was closer to ten. Now at nine months postpartum, I am back at full-steam.
My friends who must return to work abruptly struggle far more with emotional rollercoasters and burnout, even if they have enjoyed generous time off. No doubt this is hormone-related, as the mother-child bond is profoundly hormonal in nature. Abrupt breaks from a baby can also adversely affect breastfeeding. The Manager Resources page of the Johns Hopkins University and Health Systems advises offering breastfeeding mothers a gradual return as the most supportive option. No one would encourage a new mom to make her first outing without baby for fun a full-day event. And yet for so many women, this is exactly what returning to work entails five days a week.
This is where Netflix’s new leave policy is most innovative; it offers new parents the chance to pace their return according to their own needs. And yet, it’s not without its critics. As L.V. Anderson wrote at Slate, “Unlimited parental leave could make life more stressful for new parents. If that new mom down the hall came back full-time after only six weeks of leave, will you look like a slacker if you take four months and ramp back up with a three-day-a-week schedule?”
It’s a fair question. And yet something tells me most moms and dads will be more than happy to give longer leave a try. It will be interesting to see if other companies are, too. There’s an established correlation between offering longer leave and retention of female employees. When Google increased its maternity leave from three to five months and increased maternity leave pay from partial to full, it cut its attrition rate in half. Researchers interested in this policy area should study whether offering moms the opportunity to ease out and back into work has a similar effect.
As Jessica Grose wrote of new motherhood, “everyone’s experience is wildly different and impossible to predict.” In offering new parents maximum flexibility in how they return to work, Netflix removes the fear factor from that unpredictability. That could prove to be as powerful as giving workers a full year off.