Have employees’ rights to adjust work to suit family needs gone too far?

Fancy an afternoon off for a spot of nookie with the Mrs? If recent Dutch press reports are to be believed such behaviour may soon not require sneaking out of the office but would merely form one of the long list of employee rights.

Reports have stated that KLM stewards and pilots (both male and female) who want to start a family can take “ovulation leave” at the time of the month they are most likely to get pregnant.

Leaving aside the logistics of how such a policy could be monitored, is this an example of family-friendly policy gone mad, or an important step in promoting the family as the population declines?

Baby bonus

Employers may throw up their hands in horror, but the Dutch proposal is merely an extension of a ream of family-friendly legislation that has swept across Europe in the past decade: in Poland, women are paid a ‘baby-bonus’ for each child while France leads the way with its widely available public childcare.

The UK, of course, is no different. Since the introduction of paid maternity leave in 1992, family-friendly policy has grown exponentially, with the introduction of parental leave, paid paternity leave, and the right to request flexible working.

Most recently, the Work and Families Act 2006 extended the length of maternity leave and pay, while earlier this month the right to request flexible working was extended to private foster carers.

There are many good reasons for these developments: tackling the shrinking working population (predicted to reduce by 20 million by 2030), gender inequality (which remains high on the government’s agenda), work-life balance, not to mention child wellbeing.

Too kid-centric

But are we in danger of creating a ‘kid-centric’ society, with little thought directed to those left in the family-friendly wake?

As family-friendly policies multiply, the obligations on employers become increasingly onerous. Calculating maternity and paternity pay, juggling flexible working requests, and implementing keeping-in-touch days are but a few examples.

A report stated that employers lose up to £126m a year in covering maternity leave, supporting the generally negative impression that many employers – especially smaller businesses – have of such measures.

A survey, commissioned by IT firm Citrix Online, reported that 30% of employers thought that the new maternity provisions introduced by the Work and Families Act 2006 would make it harder to retain talented women, while 26% believed the Act would have a commercially negative impact.

It appears that governments may also be neglecting another important demographic group when focusing on the family.

Research by sociologists at the London School of Economics has revealed that in many European countries about 10% of women reach 45 without having children, increasingly by choice. In Germany, 30% of women choose not to have children.

Increased tension

This causes its own tensions in the workplace as employees without children, the so-called child-free rather than childless, feel that parents get a better deal when it comes to time off. This has led to the rise of active groups such as Kidding Aside (The British Childfree Association), whose purpose is to lobby for equality for people without children.

Equality is the key to family-friendly legislation: the government must strike a balance between the rights of those employees with children and those without. A policy that allows employees to indulge in a spot of “afternoon delight” is likely to upset this balance.

Mandy Laurie is a partner at Dundas & Wilson

Recent developments in UK family-friendly law

  • Statutory maternity pay extended from 26 to 39 weeks.
  • Qualifying period for additional maternity leave removed.
  • Introduction of keeping-in-touch days for women on maternity leave.
  • Right to request flexible working extended to people who care for adults and to private foster carers.
  • Consultation on proposals to give fathers the right to take up to 26 weeks’ additional paternity leave.

Comments are closed.