Commentary: IKEA’s month-long paternity leave a shining example to be followed

Commentary: IKEA’s month-long paternity leave a shining example to be followed

Research shows that children, families and society benefit when fathers take paternity leave, argues NUS’ Wei Jun Jean Yeung. It may also increase fertility rates.

New fathers working in IKEA's stores and offices across Southeast Asia get four weeks of paternity leave since Jan 1. (Photo: AFP/ANP/Robin van Lonkhuijsen)

SINGAPORE: IKEA’s move to offer month-long paid paternity leave is an exciting move in a public-private partnership to help strengthen families and encourage male employees to get involved in raising their children.

Many countries around the world have implemented various family-friendly policies. Paternity leave aims at increasing gender equity at home and in the workplace, and help fathers achieve a better balance between work and family.

Research also shows that when fathers take paternity leave, their relationships with their children strengthen, thus improving the well-being of children.

FROM EUROPE TO ASIA

Paternity leave was first initiated in Europe. Belgium and Luxembourg were the first two countries to introduce paternity leave entitlements in the 1960s, followed by Sweden and Denmark in the 1980s, and other countries, such as Austria, Finland, Norway and Poland in the 1990s.

About two-thirds of OECD countries have paternity leave entitlements today.

In recent years, East Asian countries have started to offer paternity leave. Since the 1990s, economic growth has slowed down for many Asian economies considerably. Population related problems such as ageing, ultra-low fertility rates and declining marriage rates are threatening their economic sustainability. So governments have started to roll out policies to reform workplace structures and shift mindsets in a bid to boost marriage and fertility rates.

It seems in Asia, men identify strongly with their breadwinner role. Long work hours keep many of them from spending more time with their children.

Asian fathers are comparatively less involved in their child’s birth compared to their western counterparts, despite the equally high participation of women in the labour market in many countries. Asian fathers are also considerably less involved than mothers, when it comes to caregiving and providing emotional support.


However, many contemporary Asian fathers say they would like to spend more time with their children. Enhancing paternity leave is therefore a right step to enable fathers to play a bigger role in their children’s lives.

MORE LEAVE AND MORE INCOME REPLACED

There are two measures paternity leave programmes leverage: The leave duration and the amount of salary replaced during leave. Countries vary in the amount of paternity leave and levels of compensation provided.

Some are more generous, offering long durations of paid leave and high levels of income replacement. This first group includes countries like Finland, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

Others, providing shorter durations of paternity leave but with high income replacement, include countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary and the Netherlands. 

A third group, providing short or minimal paternity leave with low or no income replacement, includes Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, Poland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. Finally, countries such as the United States provide no statutory paternity leave.

Out of all these countries, Iceland has developed one of the most effective, innovative and targeted leave system since 2000. It mandates for companies to provide a nine-month paid postnatal leave that can be divided into three parts – a three-month non-transferable leave for the father and mother respectively, and another three-month leave that both parents can draw on. The family’s financial compensation is as high as 80 per cent of last drawn salary on average. There is also a 13-week unpaid parental leave each parent can draw on each year.

(File photo: AFP)

WHEN DO FATHERS TAKE LEAVE?

Providing paternity leave is one thing, but how do we encourage fathers to consume this and spend more time with their newborns?

Studies show that fathers are most likely to consume paternity where they have the highest levels of support. Dads in countries that provide for longer durations of paternity leave are more likely to take paternity leave.

Dads in countries that provide for higher income replacement are also more likely to consume leave. Valuing family time, their children’s development and gender equality have motivated fathers to take time off. It also seems offering them more money allows dads to feel that they’re still financially supporting their families even when they spend time with their kids at home.

Dads in countries that provide a suite of other measures to support father care also take more paternity leave. Such countries provide for “fathers’ quota”, where both parents can draw from paid parental leave in the first year of their child’s birth, a certain proportion of which can be used only by dads, and daddy days, where fathers can draw on paid leave to spend time with their children even after the first year of their birth.

While families are sensitive to a “use it or lose it approach”, financial security seems like an important factor affecting the decisions of dads to take leave. In countries that do not mandate companies to provide paternity leave, like the US, dads who have a higher level of education and higher income jobs are more likely to take leave.

(File photo: AFP/Sutanta Aditya)

BENEFITS TO THE FAMILY

Having dads take time off to spend with their family is a move that could strengthen family ties. Based on studies in Australia, Denmark, the UK and the US, fathers who take leave to spend time with their family, whether paternity, parental or annual leave, are more committed to the family at the child’s birth. 

Fathers who take leave, especially those who take more than two weeks, are also more involved in their child’s care on a sustained basis, even after the first year. Many say they value the chance it gives them to develop a closer bond with their children.

Swedish dads who take longer leave worked fewer hours and were more committed to their families. Similarly, data from the UK show that fathers who take leave and work fewer hours are more involved in infant care.

Greater involvement with childcare is also found to benefit the father’s health and other aspects of his own development, including the mentoring and nurturing he provides.

UK studies have found that children whose fathers were highly involved in their well-being outperformed those who had less involved fathers in reading, vocabulary and other cognitive tests, although findings require further testing.

Children whose fathers were highly involved in their well-being outperformed those who had less involved fathers, say UK studies. (Photo: AFP)

INCREASE IN FERTILITY RATES?

Relevant to Singapore, where fertility rates have become a key preoccupation, one study in Korea has shown that the likelihood of having a second child increases when husbands take paternity leave.

The South Korean government has also taken other steps in tandem to improve the take-up rate for paternity leave, including passing a Framework Act on Healthy Families in 2004 that supports building healthy families.

A corresponding Action Plan for Healthy Families has also been introduced, which prioritises pursuing work-family balance, supporting various types of families, building family-friendly environments and establishing healthy family support centres to provide father education and family-friendly workplace programmes.

Looking at all these steps, one certainly hopes that by reforming the workplace, more fathers will spend more time with their families.

But culture does not change overnight. The take-up rate for paternity and daddy care leave in Europe only increased gradually.

Deep-seated traditional gender norms and values remain strong in Asia where patriarchy and inter-generational hierarchies are powerful forces that shape fatherhood and behavior.

Nonetheless, enhanced paternity leave, of which the benefits to the family and to society are well-documented, are important steps in the right direction. The public and private sectors need to work together to help change family and work culture.

IKEA’s move to help families is encouraging and I hope it inspires other companies to follow suit.

Wei Jun Jean Yeung is the provost’s chair professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Sociology and Asian Research Institute. She is also director of the NUS Centre for Family and Population Research.

Source: CNA/sl

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