Old Mutual leaders unpack the impact of parental leave changes


New parents will soon legally have the right to decide how to divide the four months of parental leave. Lindiwe Sebesho, managing director of Remchannel, and Blessing Utete, managing executive of Old Mutual Corporate consultants, provide their views on whether workplace policies and culture are ready for this gender shift.

With changes expected in legislation governing conditions for parental leave in South Africa, companies may be forced to transform their workplace cultures and policies to ensure that they align with the evolving social landscape and employee expectations.

Lindiwe Sebesho, managing director of Remchannel, emphasises the urgency for corporate South Africa to adapt. She notes that South Africa is poised to undergo a significant shift in parental leave, driven by a landmark ruling from the Johannesburg High Court in October 2023. This change introduces a flexible, gender-neutral approach to parental leave, allowing new parents to decide how to split or share the four months, traditionally earmarked for mothers as maternity leave, between both parents.

“Cultural biases or stigmas surrounding parental leave may complicate implementation efforts, underscoring the need to cultivate a supportive culture that truly and meaningfully values work-life integration,” she notes. “In addition to this, many companies may not yet appreciate how updating their parental leave policies to align with the test case that led to the landmark ruling can enhance a company’s attractiveness in the competitive job market, serving as a critical lever in attracting and retaining top talent.”

She points out that by immediately aligning parental leave policies with the expectations of younger employees who are still building families, companies can improve their attractiveness and reduce the risk of losing valuable staff members who might otherwise depart for family-related reasons. She also adds that inclusive parental leave policies are pivotal in enabling working parents, particularly mothers, to better balance family commitments with the demands of their careers.

Maternity leave benefits dominate

The latest Remchannel employee benefits survey offers a lens through which the current state of parental leave policies in South African organisations can be examined. The survey reveals that employers continue to focus on improving maternity leave benefits, and not so much on adopting inclusive parental leave policies.

The survey highlights a positive trend in the conditions for maternity leave; 58.5 percent of the 2023 survey respondents reported that maternity leave is fully paid, marking a notable increase from 43.5 percent in 2019. In addition, most organisations ensure that employees on maternity leave continue to accrue all other benefits, underscoring a commitment to maintaining financial and employment security during this period.

An emerging trend from the 2023 data reveals an improvement in performance-based bonus eligibility for those on maternity leave, with 48.9 percent of respondents affirming full eligibility, up from 41.3 percent in 2019. This 7.6 percentage point increase reflects a growing recognition of the importance of ensuring that mothers are not penalised for taking maternity leave. However, it still underscores the need for a broader shift towards more companies adopting fair and inclusive parental leave policies that encompass all parents, not just mothers.

A mere 14.9 percent of organisations offer additional paternity leave days beyond the statutory 10 days, highlighting a significant need to reassess parental leave provisions to meet the changing expectations of the workforce and align with the High Court test case.

However, cultural biases and stigmas surrounding parental leave could impede effective implementation. A report in the Wall Street Journal indicates that, despite expanded access to parental leave, many fathers in the US still view it as a career risk. They worry that their commitment to their jobs will be questioned or that they will face ridicule.

On the other hand, several European countries serve as models for parental leave policies. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands have introduced flexible arrangements allowing parents to decide how to share leave, with mandatory recovery leave for mothers.

Facing the challenges

Lindiwe notes that as South African companies inevitably embrace the shift towards inclusive parental leave policies, they must prepare to face the operational challenges that come with it, including potential staffing gaps and financial strains. Proactive planning, such as cross-training employees, considering temporary hires, and conducting market research to balance competitive benefits with financial sustainability, is crucial.

“Additionally, navigating legal compliance and addressing cultural biases against inclusive leave demands informed, strategic responses. Encouraging leaders to lead by example and encourage the taking of parental leave by both parents can catalyse a cultural shift towards valuing work-life balance,” she says.

Blessing Utete, managing executive of Old Mutual Corporate consultants, underlines the strategic advantage of flexible parental leave policies: “Prioritising flexible parental leave policies boosts a company’s employee value proposition and fosters a more supportive and productive work environment.”

He says this flexibility underscores the connection between progressive policies and a company’s capability to attract and retain top talent. The shift towards inclusive parental leave policies is more than just a legal adjustment; it represents a move towards broader societal change. These policies dismantle stereotypes by promoting equal support for both parents, creating a more inclusive work environment.

Blessing calls for innovation and forward-thinking in navigating the global talent market: “Staying ahead is paramount to meet employees’ varied circumstances and needs. This awareness highlights the need for adaptability and creativity to design benefits to stay competitive and responsive to the workforce’s evolving needs,” he concludes.

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