Dad's time to shine
The drive for mandatory paid paternity leave could help fathers both at work and at home
A bill due to go before lawmakers in the summer is likely to let working dads spend a few paid days at home bonding with their newborn babies.
With lawmakers expected to give their stamp of approval to the government’s proposal to introduce mandatory paid paternity leave, it will become compulsory for public and private employers to give new fathers three days off on 80 per cent of their salary – the same pay workers receive for sick leave. Currently, new mums are allowed to take 10 weeks’ maternity leave if they have been employed continuously for more than 40 weeks. The move follows the introduction of a government pilot scheme allowing civil servants to take paternity leave of five working days on full pay.
A recent study from talent consultancy Mercer, which looked at mandatory and private benefit practices across 64 countries, shows that the moves in Hong Kong reflect a growing trend for greater family-leave policies in response to changing social needs.
Connie Leung, Hong Kong information solutions leader at Mercer, believes interest in the benefits of paternity leave will continue to develop naturally due to females playing a more important and active role in the talent market. “The woman’s role in the family is also changing, and the responsibility for childcare is increasingly shared by their spouse or partner,” she says.
She adds that paternity leave is already a relatively common practice among multinational companies in Hong Kong. “Of the 240 companies on our benefits database, slightly more than three-quarters offer paternity leave, with a market norm of about two to three days of paid leave,” she says.
In general, Leung explains, multinationals operating in the financial-services, hi-tech and consumer-goods sectors offer the most paternity-leave days. However, while multinational and large local companies tend to factor in the cost of paternity leave when calculating remuneration, some SMEs could find paternity leave has a strong impact on their labour costs.
According to government figures, about 40,000 babies are born in Hong Kong each year and the extra cost of three to five days’ paternity leave represents about 0.02 per cent to 0.04 per cent of Hong Kong’s total annual wage bill – or HK$100 million to HK$400 million. A Labour Department survey revealed that 32.5 per cent of interviewed employers voluntarily offer paid paternity leave to new dads. This indicates that almost 70 per cent of employers decline to offer paternity leave.
On the mainland, depending on local regulations and guidelines, paternity leave varies between three and 30 days. In Europe, paternity leave varies from country to country and generally allows males to take between two weeks and two months paid leave. In the US, where paternity leave is not a mandatory benefit, new dads usually take unpaid leave, or part of their holiday allowance, to enable them to spend time with their newborn children.
Professional services firm EY, which began offering paternity leave in Hong Kong in 2008, believes the initiative is a core element of its diversity and inclusiveness agenda. “We recognise and support our people’s need for work-life balance, and paternity leave is one of a number of people policies and practices we have in place,” says Agnes Chan, managing partner, Hong Kong & Macau, for EY. Eligible employees at EY can take five days’ leave on full pay.
Chan says that offering paternity leave allows male colleagues to meet their personal needs for their new role as a father. “Paternity leave is extremely important, to allow dads to support their partners and bond with their newborns,” she says. She adds that EY research shows that empowering people to manage their work responsibilities and time commitments links to higher levels of engagement, staff retention and productivity. “Paternity leave is just one example of our approach to supporting our people by providing them with flexibility choices to achieve a better work-life balance,” Chan says.
The Big Four firm also operates a working parents network to provide support, networking and experience-sharing for employees. “We believe that together, these family-friendly practices have a long-term positive impact on engagement and retention of key staff,” Chan says.
However, while the introduction of mandatory paternity leave is largely seen by recruitment firms, HR professionals and workplace interest groups as a positive step towards strengthening family-friendly workplace practices, not everyone agrees. Liberal Party lawmaker Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, for example, says that the government has listened to the demands of workers while putting an unnecessary financial burden on SMEs. The Federation of Hong Kong Industries, meanwhile, links Europe’s provision of paternity leave to the continent’s debt crisis.
But Matthew Bennett, managing director of Robert Walters Greater China, takes a different view. “Family occasions such as the birth of a baby are so important. The benefits of giving employees paternity leave outweigh the costs to employers,” says Bennett, whose company provides five days’ paternity leave.
He adds that as the contract-hiring market expands and becomes more accepted, it is easier for employers to hire temporary specialist skills if one of their employees is taking paternity leave.
John Henderson, Asia-Pacific CFO at Regus, says that paternity leave is already the norm in many countries and a growing body of research indicates a link between work-life balance, productivity and talent retention. “It is hardly surprising that employees perform better at work when they are not worrying about how to meet their non-work commitments. I believe this initiative represents a win-win for local fathers and their employers,” he says.
Martin Cerullo, managing director of development for Asia-Pacific at Alexander Mann Solutions, takes a similar view. “Ultimately, paternity leave is aimed at ensuring employees have the opportunity to connect with their families at a very important time, which has a positive impact on employee engagement levels,” he says.
BOOSTING PERSONAL FULFILMENT AND FAMILY TIES
The advice to new dads from Alex Kwong, senior manager – assurance at Big Four firm EY, is to make the most of paternity leave, relish the chance to support their partners and get to know the new addition to the family.
“The benefits of paternity leave are undeniable, and are something every modern father should be encouraged to take advantage of – not only for his child’s benefit, but also for his own sense of fulfilment, and to maintain a healthy relationship with his wife,” Kwong explains.
Studies in Europe and the US – although paternity leave in the US is not mandatory – indicate that dads spending time with their newborns may also have a significant impact on their children’s cognitive development. Research suggests that fathers who take paternity leave are likely to engage more regularly in early childcare activities, such as feeding and reading bedtime stories, than those who do not take time off.
Kwong says he views his employers’ policy of offering paternity leave as a sign of respect and concern for employees. “It makes me feel like EY is not only an employer, but also a considerate firm that wants you to enjoy your memorable moments in life,” he says. “I was fortunate to have an understanding supervisor who supported my decision and allowed me to take a week’s leave to be at home with my wife and newborn daughter, experiencing the joys of parenthood.”
While on paternity leave, Kwong says he was able to stay in hospital to support his wife. After their daughter’s birth, he was able to help with feeding and housework, and ensure the home was welcoming and baby-friendly.
In an era when contact with the office is only a text or e-mail away, and technological advances mean that a lot of work can be done on portable devices, Kwong says he was able to stay in touch with colleagues when needed and keep up to date with useful and important work-related topics. “My supervisor and colleagues only made ‘reasonable contact’,” he says. “Thanks to their support and back-up, I was able to entirely focus on my family.”