First there was the publication in 2016 of Meghann Foye’s novel “Meternity” about a woman who fakes a pregnancy to get time off from work. Then came the backlash. The problem for many people was her linkage of the desire for an extended (and presumably restful) leave from work with maternity leave, which is anything but restful.
The response was such that Foye felt compelled to write a follow-up piece in the New York Post in which she explained that her novel was meant to be a “lighthearted read” and that she has “great respect for moms and know from many of my friends about the sleepless nights and adjustments that are made with a newborn.”
Now, some 18-plus months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with all its attendant disruptions and stressors, it may well be time for employers to formally adopt meternity (sometimes also called “child-free leave”) policies — and not just for the duration of the pandemic, but as a permanent employment benefit.
The basic idea is that employees sometimes need extended time away from work simply to rest, reset, and recharge.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for this type of leave. Because of school closures, many employees who are parents have had to request flexible or alternate work schedules or take leaves of absence themselves to deal with kids stuck at home. But this can lead to complaints and resentment from employees who are not parents, who are often stuck taking on the work of absent employee-parents. In either case, the result is employees overloaded and, in some cases, on the verge of burnout, but with no clear way to take time off from work to address the very real need for self-care.
Further compounding the issue is the fact that state and federal leave laws, most importantly the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act, permit employees to take leave only for relatively few and narrow reasons, such as the birth or adoption of a child or because of the employee’s statutorily defined “serious health condition.” An employee cannot take FMLA/CFRA leave for feeling bunt out.
In addition, simply relying on employees to use vacation leave doesn’t suffice. Vacation are usually of short duration, perhaps a week or two at most, and employees often feel compelled to check email and return phone calls. American workers can also be notorious for simply not taking vacation. According to the most recent report from the U.S. Travel Association, more than half of employees never use all of their paid vacation days.
And the situation doesn’t improve when employers institute unlimited vacation policies. As fastcompany.com noted, “Employees often take fewer vacation days if their company has an unlimited policy, since there’s no framework for how many days they can — or should — take off.”
So it falls on employers to be proactive and institute policies that go beyond existing leave laws and vacation policies, that permit employees to take extended time off from work to rest and recharge. And there are good reasons to do so.
First and foremost, such policies can help avoid employee burnout, which in turn mitigates employee turnover. Second, they can increase employee loyalty and very likely productivity. Third, they are an employment benefit that can make the employer more attractive to prospective employees, something particularly important during this time of severe worker shortages. And fourth, it’s just the right thing to do — taking the mental health and welfare of employees seriously.
For any employers that may be reluctant to institute such a leave policy, it’s perhaps helpful to realize that there’s already a well-established model that can be “retro-fitted” to allow meternity or child-free leaves: the sabbatical.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sabbaticals originally arose in the academic setting as a period of paid leave granted to a university teacher for study or travel. Sabbaticals have traditionally lasted one year and could be taken every seven years.
A number of private employers outside academia already provide sabbaticals of varying lengths and for varying reasons. For example, Patagonia has an Environmental Internship Program that permits employees to take up to two months of paid leave to work for an environmental group of the employee’s choice. Adobe permits employees, every five years, to take sabbaticals of varying lengths depending on a given employee’s length of service and with no restrictions on what the employee does while on sabbatical.
The nomenclature might need some work — neither “meternity” nor “child-free leave” seems to capture the essence of what this type of leave is all about. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that employers should welcome the ability of their employees to take extended leave from work to administer some much needed self-care.
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