Review of government initiatives for reconciling work and family life

Research Report No. 34 – August 2015

3. Leave and return-to-work policies

Provision of leave to undertake caring responsibilities is clearly a central part of many governments' approaches to work-family issues. Details of different leave arrangements used for the care of children around the time of a birth are considered here first; that is, maternity, paternity and parental leave. Adoptive parents are usually able to access the same policies. The section also examines other types of leave, including those used for caring purposes.

In relation to leave from employment following a birth, while most countries have separate arrangements for maternity, paternity and parental leave, these separate arrangements are becoming less distinct, with some countries, such as Sweden and Iceland, having no specific period of maternity leave, but instead offering parental leave with a portion sanctioned for mothers (Moss, 2014). This is discussed further below.

Across OECD countries the variation in leave policies is vast, in relation to eligibility requirements, the length and remuneration of the leave, coverage and funding. This section does not provide a comprehensive review, but highlights some of the main differences. Across the EU, member states are required to adhere to minimum standards regarding maternity leave, parental leave and job protection for pregnant women, and new and breastfeeding mothers. This has occurred through the EU's 1992 maternity leave directives, and the 1996 and 2010 parental leave directives. Even across these countries some have more generous provisions than others.

3.1 Maternity leave

There are clearly gendered arrangements in place for the time immediately after the birth of a child in many countries, with maternity leave only applicable to mothers to provide a period of time for recovery from the pregnancy and birth, and time for breastfeeding and bonding with an infant. Maternity leave provides a job-protected absence from work for a period around the birth, including a number of weeks before and after. There is some variation across countries in regard to when maternity leave is to start (how many weeks before the birth), and also in regard to whether any or all of the maternity leave is obligatory.

Paid maternity leave is offered in the vast majority of countries, although the rate and length of payment varies. The usual length of leave is between 14 and 18 weeks, paid at a percentage of prior earnings (usually between about 70% and 100%). As seen in Figure 2, the Scandinavian maternity leave entitlements are particularly generous, although Eastern European countries also have extensive maternity leave periods (see especially Bulgaria and Estonia, which have the longest periods of paid maternity leave). Some examples of maternity leave policies are given in Box 2.

Figure 2: Duration of employment-protected maternity leave, paid and unpaid, selected OECD countries, 2013

Figure 2: Duration of employment-protected maternity leave, paid and unpaid, selected OECD countries, 2013. As described in accompanying text.

Note: Includes mother quota of parental leave. The entitlement to paid leave is presented as the full-rate equivalent (FRE) of the proportion of the duration of paid leave if it were paid at 100% of last earnings. FRE is calculated as duration of leave in weeks ´ payment (as a percentage of average wage earnings) received by the claimant. There are some inconsistencies in calculation across countries. For notes and sources for other countries, refer to OECD Family database, PF2.1 Key characteristics of parental leave systems.

Source: OECD Family database (downloaded August 2014), PF2.1 Key characteristics of parental leave systems

Box 2: Examples of maternity leave policies

Belgium Employees can take 15 weeks maternity leave (1 week before and 9 weeks after are obligatory). Self-employed women have 8 weeks of maternity leave. Employees in the public sector receive full salary, others receive 82% in the first month and 75% in remaining months (capped). Up to 2 weeks of leave can be taken as "free days" to allow mothers to more gradually return to work (Merla & Deven, 2014). This means using those "free days" along with reduced days at work for a period of time, rather than returning directly to usual work hours.
France Maternity leave is obligatory. Mothers can access 16 weeks of leave at up to 100% of their earnings (capped in the private sector, although employers can make up the difference), including at least 2 weeks before the birth. Longer leave of 24 weeks is available to women having a third or higher order birth (Fagnani, Boyer, & Thevenon, 2014).
Japan Women employees are entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave at 66% of prior earnings, paid through a health insurance system, and financed by contributions from employees, employers, local government and the state. Six weeks of leave are obligatory (Nakazato & Nishimura, 2014).
United Kingdom Mothers have access to leave for 52 weeks, of which 2 weeks' leave after the birth is obligatory. This leave comprises 6 weeks' payment at 90% of prior earnings (with no cap), 33 weeks paid at a low flat rate, and the remainder unpaid. Eligibility is based on employment conditions (employees with 26 weeks continuous employment with their employer, into the 50th week before the baby is due) and a minimum earnings test. Mothers who are not eligible for this leave may be eligible for a maternity allowance (O'Brien, Moss, & Daly, 2014).

Maternity leave arrangements are particularly comprehensive in the EU through the maternity leave directives (most recently amended in 2008), which address working conditions as they relate to the safety and health of pregnant workers, workers who have recently given birth and breastfeeding mothers.9 The directives also provide for protection against dismissal. From 1996, all EU countries have been required to enact legislation that allows parents to care for children full-time for the first three months of their lives (Plantenga & Siegel, 2005). Many countries have policies in place that provide entitlements beyond those required in the 1996 directives (National Framework Committee for Work Life Balance Policies, 2007). Also, entitlements vary in many countries in the case of multiple births, disabled or very ill children, or in exceptional situations, such as if the mother or child dies.

Some innovation in maternity leave policy is evident in Portugal, where mothers can choose to take their leave over a longer period, paid at 80% of the usual rate. In Poland, mothers can access 26 or 52 weeks of paid maternity leave, with payment level somewhat lower if taken over 52 weeks. The first 20 weeks of leave is referred to as maternity leave (the balance referred to as parental leave), and of this, 14 weeks is obligatory. The remainder can be taken part-time (combined with part-time working), or can be transferred to the father (Michoñ & Kotowska, 2014).

Other countries' innovative approaches also relate to bringing fathers into the caring role by allowing for some of the maternity leave entitlement to be transferred to the father. This is possible in the Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland (as noted above), Portugal, Spain and the UK (Moss, 2014).

Quite different models apply in those countries that subsume maternity leave into the parental leave entitlement, such as in Sweden and Norway. In both these countries, parental leave entitlements are generous, allowing for a long period of leave with high wage replacement. Parental leave is discussed in section 3.3.

Paid maternity leave tends to have a high take-up rate. Taking all or part of the leave is obligatory in most countries (Moss, 2014). However, in most countries, the extent to which mothers are in employment prior to birth will significantly affect the proportion of mothers across the population who are able to take up paid maternity leave, as entitlement is often conditional on having previous work experience and subject to various job tenure restrictions. Many countries have an alternative allowance for those who are not eligible to an earnings-based payment (e.g., Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, United Kingdom) (Moss, 2014; National Framework Committee for Work Life Balance Policies, 2007).

3.2 Paternity leave

Paternity leave is generally made available to fathers in the weeks following the birth of the child, and is sometimes provided as part of parental leave, rather than specifically identified as paternity leave. While not required under EU directives, the majority of EU member countries provide for a minimum of 10 days of paternity leave (Commission of the European Communities, 2008c). Australia has no statutory paternity leave. Some examples of paternity leave policies are shown in Box 3, and a comparison of selected countries with paternity leave is shown in Figure 3.

Box 3: Examples of paternity leave policies

Canada (& Québec) No statutory paternity leave in Canada - only in Québec. As with their maternity leave policy, paternity leave in Québec can be taken for a shorter period at a higher rate of pay (for three weeks at up to 75% of their average weekly income, capped), or for a longer period at a lower rate of pay (for 5 weeks at up to 70% of their income, capped) (Doucet, Lero, & Tremblay, 2014).
France Men can access 2 weeks of paternity leave at up to 100% of their earnings (capped in the private sector, although employers can make up the difference), which must be taken within 4 months of a birth (Fagnani et al., 2014).
The Netherlands Fathers are entitled to 2 days of paternity leave, paid in full by the employer, which can be taken within 4 weeks of the birth of a child (den Dulk, 2014).
Spain Employed fathers are entitled to 15 days of paternity leave, paid at 100% of earnings (with a ceiling). In addition, 10 weeks of maternity leave may be transferred to the father in some circumstances (if mothers have taken 6 weeks of maternity leave after the birth, the father fulfils contributory requirements, and the transfer does not endanger the mother's health) (Escobedo & Meil, 2014).
Sweden Fathers can take 10 days of "temporary leave in connection with a child's birth or adoption" within 60 days after the birth. Payment is up to 80% of their earnings, capped. Self-employed fathers are also covered (Duvander, Haas, & Hwang, 2014).
United Kingdom Fathers are eligible for 2 weeks of paternity leave, paid at the flat rate of maternity pay, which must be taken within 55 days of the child's birth (O'Brien et al., 2014).

Figure 3: Duration of employment-protected paternity leave, paid and unpaid, selected OECD countries, 2013

Figure 3: Duration of employment-protected paternity leave, paid and unpaid, selected OECD countries, 2013. As described in accompanying text.

Note: Includes father quota of parental leave. The entitlement to paid leave is presented as the FRE of the proportion of the duration of paid leave if it were paid at 100% of last earnings. FRE is calculated as duration of leave in weeks ´ payment (as a percentage of average wage earnings) received by the claimant. There are some inconsistencies in calculation across countries. For notes and sources for other countries, refer to OECD Family database, PF2.1 Key characteristics of parental leave systems.
Source: OECD Family database (downloaded August 2014), PF2.1 Key characteristics of parental leave systems

Obligatory paternity leave is rare. In Portugal, fathers are entitled to 20 days of "fathers-only parental leave", which equates to paternity leave. Of this, 10 days are obligatory, including 5 that must be taken immediately after the birth and another 5 that must be taken in the first month after the birth (Wall & Leitão, 2014). In some countries, a portion of maternity leave can be transferred to the father (see in Maternity leave, above). Leave for fathers is also available through parental leave in some of those countries that do not specifically have an entitlement to paternity leave (see below).

In Norway, the purpose of paternity leave is considered to be to assist the mother, and so this leave can be transferred to someone else if the father does not live with the mother (Brandth & Kvande, 2014).

An important aspect of paternity leave is the rate at which it is paid. Men are unlikely to take unpaid paternity leave (Commission of the European Communities, 2008c), but when salary compensation during the period of leave is earnings-related, take-up rates are relatively high (O'Brien et al., 2007). Take-up rates of paternity leave are lower than those of maternity leave, although in several countries (e.g., Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK) take-up rates of around two-thirds are reported (Moss, 2014).

3.3 Parental leave

Parental leave is a job-protected absence from work, usually additional to maternity and paternity leave, and has been introduced in the majority of developed countries, although the conditions of this leave vary enormously across countries. This leave has tended to be available to both parents, for one or both to take, although it is taken much more by mothers than by fathers (Moss, 2014). In some countries in more recent years, parental leave entitlements have included a period of time quarantined for use only by the father, to encourage their take-up of the leave (discussed further below). In fact, an emerging trend in relation to leave for parents is for parental leave to subsume maternity leave, but with parental leave including separate amounts of leave that are designated for use by the mother and by the father (Moss, 2014).

EU countries are bound by the parental leave directives to provide parental leave, with minimum conditions specified relating to time off after the birth, unlawful dismissal during parental leave, and further time off to attend to family emergencies or illness (Ray, 2008). As with maternity leave, there are, however, many differences across EU countries, as there are across all developed countries. Refer to Box 4 for examples and to Figure 4 for comparisons of leave entitlements across selected OECD countries. Below, we elaborate on some of the ways in which parental leave varies across countries.

As at 2014, few developed countries provided no parental leave (Switzerland, South Africa and the US) (see Moss, 2014).

Box 4: Examples of parental leave policies


Paid parental leave of 158 working days is available as a family entitlement. The rate of payment is earnings-related and, on average, is 70-75% of their usual earnings (capped), paid through the national insurance system. Leave can be taken part-time only if both parents work part-time and employers agree. Leave can be taken by each parent in two parts of at least 12 days duration (Salmi & Lammi-Taskula, 2014).


Parental leave of 3 years is available as a family entitlement. For the first 12 months, parents are entitled to a "child-rearing benefit" of up to 67% of their average earnings (capped). This payment can be taken at half-pay for 24 months instead. The payment period is extended to 14 months if at least 2 months of the leave is taken by the father. Parents can also combine parental leave with part-time work, with a reduced benefit. The final year of parental leave can be available up to the child's 8th birthday, if the employer agrees (Blum & Erler, 2014; Commission of the European Communities, 2008c).

The Netherlands

The amount of leave each parent can take is equal to 26 times the hours they worked before the birth, per child. Leave has to be taken part-time, unless the employer agrees to full-time leave. Leave can be taken up to the child's 8th birthday, in two or three blocks of time, with the agreement of the employer. Parental leave is unpaid, but parents taking parental leave are entitled to a tax reduction. Some parents have access to partially paid parental leave through their employer (den Dulk, 2014).

New Zealand

Up to 52 weeks of extended leave can be taken by parents after the birth, including any paid maternity leave taken. Most of the leave, then, is unpaid. Extended leave must be taken in one continuous period in the child's first year, after paid maternity or paternity leave. The leave can be shared by both parents and can be taken simultaneously or consecutively (McDonald, 2014; NZ Department of Labour, 2008a).


Paid parental leave of 480 days is available per family. Of this, 60 days are quarantined for the mother and 60 days for the father. Half of the remaining days are also reserved for each parent; however, these days can be transferred from one to the other upon the parent giving up his or her days by signing a consent form. Parental leave is paid at up to 78% of their usual earnings (capped) for the first 390 days of leave and at a flat (low) rate for the remaining 90 days (Duvander et al., 2014). (See also Sweden's "gender equality bonus", in Box 5.)

Figure 4: Duration of employment-protected parental leave, selected OECD countries, 2013

Figure 4: Duration of employment-protected parental leave, selected OECD countries, 2013. As described in accompanying text.

Note: Does not include periods of leave for exclusive use by mothers and fathers and is regardless of income support. Includes subsequent prolonged periods of leave to care for young children (sometimes under a different name, e.g., "child care leave" or "home care leave", or the complément de libre choix d'activité in France). The entitlement to paid leave is presented as the FRE of the proportion of the duration of paid leave if it were paid at 100% of last earnings. FRE is calculated as the duration of leave in weeks ´ payment (as a percentage of average wage earnings) received by the claimant. There are some inconsistencies in calculation across countries. For notes and sources for other countries, refer to OECD Family database, PF2.1 Key characteristics of parental leave systems.
Source: OECD Family database (downloaded August 2014), PF2.1 Key characteristics of parental leave systems

The length and level of remuneration

Many countries provide a year or more of parental leave, although this period of leave is not always paid at full wage replacement for the entire period. While job protection is therefore guaranteed for those who can afford to take a longer absence from work, the financial incentive to remain out of employment will vary depending on what the specific arrangements are. The variation is evident in Figure 4, by looking at the differences in full-rate equivalent paid leave across countries. Compensation during parental leave is dependent on prior earnings in countries such as Finland (70-75% of prior earnings), Germany (67%), Iceland (80%), Sweden (78%) and Italy (30%), although this tends to be capped at a certain level and/or after a certain number of days, beyond which a lower percentage or a fixed rate of payment applies. Parents in Denmark who are employees covered by collective agreements can access parental leave at 100% of their prior earnings, up to a ceiling. Elsewhere, compensation is in the form of a flat-rate payment (e.g., Austria, Belgium, France and Luxembourg), or parents receive financial compensation through the tax system (e.g., the Netherlands and Luxembourg). In other countries, parental leave is unpaid (Greece, Ireland, Spain and the UK; see specific country notes in Moss, 2014, for details).

The flexibility of leave and return-to-work arrangements

It has been suggested that good leave schemes give parents choice in their return-to-work decisions, and allow flexibility in taking leave entitlements (OECD, 2007, p. 21)

The more flexible parental leave models allow parents to share the leave between parents, to take parental leave at any time from the end of maternity leave to some specified age of child (e.g., up to 12 years old in Sweden, and 3 years old in France and Germany), and to combine parental leave with part-time work, as a gradual return-to-work strategy. There have been considerable developments over recent years in these various flexible options.

In recognition that it is difficult to combine full-time work with the care of a young infant, in several countries, as part of the parental leave "package", parents are able to return to work at reduced hours for a specified period. This "gradual return to work" is facilitated through parental leave that can be taken part-time. When this parental leave is paid, the part-time parental leave compensates for the reduced hours at work (or part-time work "tops up" the parental leave). Gradual return-to-work models provide job protection and a right to return to previous working hours. For example:

  • Sweden has promoted part-time work in this way (Fagan, 2003) and, indeed, part-time work is most often used this way - for a relatively short period of time after the birth of a child as a transition from leave back to full-time hours (Evans, Lippoldt, & Marianna, 2001). In Sweden, parents have the right to request a reduction in work hours by up to 25%, up until the child's 8th birthday (Duvander et al., 2014).
  • In Germany, parents can work part-time while on parental leave (with a right to return to full-time work afterwards), and the third year of parental leave can be taken any time until the child's 8th birthday with the employer's agreement (Blum & Erler, 2014).

The part-time work option may not be available in all jobs, such as those in small businesses. For example, in Germany, access to part-time work is not guaranteed in workplaces of 15 or fewer employees. Further, employers may be able to refuse a request for part-time work if it would detrimentally affect the business or workplace (Hegewisch & Gornick, 2008; OECD, 2010).

As seen in these examples, access to part-time work through parental leave can continue beyond the immediate post-maternity period. In countries such as Sweden, Germany and Finland, this parental leave/part-time work option can be saved up and taken in blocks of time, rather than using it all up before returning to work full-time. Other countries that have similar approaches are Belgium, Estonia and the Netherlands (Moss, 2014; OECD, 2014a). Being able to take some of the leave at a later time can lead to a higher take-up of leave by fathers (Hegewisch & Gornick, 2008).

Another flexible approach to parental leave, or to parental leave payments, is the ability for parents to transfer some of this to others (such as grandparents) who are assisting the parents by providing care to children. This is possible, for example, in Estonia and Hungary, and will be discussed when exploring child care provisions in section 4.4.

Eligibility requirements and special conditions to encourage take-up by fathers

One difference across countries is how parental leave entitlement is determined - whether it is per family or per parent - and if a parental entitlement, whether two parents can take parental leave at the same time (Moss, 2014; OECD, 2014a). This is most relevant in considering whether or not fathers will take some of the parental leave. While parental leave has, for some years, been available to share between the mother and father in general, fathers still take significantly less time out of employment to help care for children. As stated by the OECD:

taking a few weeks of leave after childbirth or around summer and Christmas holidays does not reflect a fundamental behavioural change. Paternal attitudes are not the only issue, as mothers frequently seem reluctant to give up leave in favour of their partner … The debate about individualisation of the entire paid parental leave entitlement which could contribute to a more equal sharing of care responsibilities has yet to start in earnest. (OECD, 2007, p. 22)

Moss (2008) summarised the key features of fathers' use of leave as, fathers:

  • using high paid "fathers only" leave;
  • not using low paid or unpaid parental leave;
  • not using a "family entitlement" to leave, even if high paid, if there is also a "fathers only" entitlement;
  • making only limited use of the "family entitlement" to leave if there is no "fathers only" entitlement, that is, mothers are using most or all of the leave that is a "family entitlement" (pp. 80-81).

As take-up of parental leave has continued to be very low for fathers, various approaches have been developed with the goal of increasing fathers' take-up of leave. Some countries have attempted to increase the role of fathers in providing care by allowing or even requiring that some of the parental leave be used by the father. This has been done, for example, by incorporating a bonus period of leave that can only be accumulated if the father takes his portion of leave (e.g., in Finland, Germany and Italy). These approaches are referred to as "ring-fencing" fathers' leave, or a "use it or lose it" approach (see examples for Iceland and Norway, in Box 5).

Another approach is the availability of bonus payments for families in which the fathers take up leave (e.g., in Sweden; see Box 5). Also, as noted in section 3.1, some countries enable a portion of maternity leave (not just parental leave) to be shared between mothers and fathers.

An important consideration for fathers, and for their families, is that fathers are very often the higher income earner, and it can therefore be very costly for families if this income is reduced due to a period of unpaid, or reduced-pay, leave (O'Brien et al., 2007). Gornick and Meyers (2003) suggested that high wage replacement, along with public education campaigns, may be what is required to encourage fathers to take parental leave.

Box 5: Examples of policies to encourage take-up of leave by fathers


Up until the end of 2012, fathers were eligible for 24 bonus days of leave if they tpok the last 2 weeks of parental leave. Together, this was referred to as the "father's month". At 2014, all fathers' leave has been subsumed into paternity leave (Salmi & Lammi-Taskula, 2014).


Of a total of 9 months of paid parental leave, 3 months are allocated to the mother, 3 months to the father and the remaining 3 months can be taken by either parent (parents' joint rights). Payment of up to 80% of parents' earnings (capped). In 2010, 95% of fathers took some leave, including 17% of fathers who used some of the parents' joint rights. Fathers took about one-third of the total parental leave days (Eydal & Gíslason, 2014).


Up to mid-2014, the total length of parental leave was 46 weeks with 100% wage replacement (capped), or a longer leave with lower payment. Of the 46 weeks, 14 weeks were for the mother and 14 weeks for the father (the father's quota), with the remaining weeks being a shared family entitlement. Previously, the fathers' quota was less and the shared period longer, the change having intended to achieve more equal rights between mothers and fathers in access to leave. However, a new government changed entitlements again, such that from mid-2014, the mothers' and fathers' quotas were to be reduced to 10 weeks and the shared quota increased by 8 weeks. Changes introduced at this time also made it easier to transfer fathers' entitlements to mothers, with the fathers' work situation being a valid justification for such a transfer (Brandth & Kvande, 2014).


Couples are entitled to a "gender equality bonus" (an additional payment) if they share parental leave equally. The bonus is also available to parents who do not live together (Duvander et al., 2014; Ray, 2008).

3.4 Return-to-work employment rights

Job protection is a central feature of maternity, paternity and parental leave, such that this leave is sometimes referred to as "job-protected" leave. For example, the 2010 amendments to the EU parental leave directives state: "At the end of parental leave, workers shall have the right to return to the same job or, if that is not possible, to an equivalent or similar job consistent with their employment contract or employment relationship".10

Rights to return to the same, or equivalent, job after returning from leave are usually addressed in relation to these forms of leave. On return to work, some countries offer parents options for varying their working arrangements to better fit within their care requirements. Rights to request variations in hours or flexible work arrangements are discussed in section 5.

3.5 Breastfeeding breaks and facilities

An important work and family issue is how breastfeeding is managed for women who wish to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. This has implications beyond the parents' sense of work-family balance, to child and maternal health.11 Returning to work has been linked to lower breastfeeding rates, or shorter breastfeeding durations, especially if mothers return to full-time work (e.g., Baxter, 2008; Fein & Roe, 1998; Kimbro, 2006). Policies can help in both facilitating the return to work for women who are still breastfeeding, and helping women to continue breastfeeding given they need or wish to return to work.

The main area to which government policy has been directed is in relation to breastfeeding breaks. The ILO Maternity Protection Convention states that:

A woman shall be provided with the right to one or more daily breaks or a daily reduction of hours of work to breastfeed her child. The period during which nursing breaks or the reduction of daily hours of work are allowed, their number, the duration of nursing breaks and the procedures for the reduction of daily hours of work shall be determined by national law and practice. These breaks or the reduction of daily hours of work shall be counted as working time and remunerated accordingly. (Article 10)12

One option is to legislate for the provision of such breaks for working mothers. The ILO estimated, in 2010, that at least 92 countries had legislation that provided for breastfeeding breaks (ILO, 2010; see Box 6 for some examples). Many EU countries do not specify breaks for breastfeeding, because more generous parental leave entitlements mean a high proportion of mothers are at home when they are still breastfeeding.

Box 6: Examples of approaches to breastfeeding breaks


Mothers of children up to 12 months old are entitled to two unpaid breaks of at least 30 minutes per day. These can be used for breastfeeding, or for other child care reasons, such as picking up children from child care centres (Nakazato & Nishimura, 2014).

New Zealand

Since 2009, through legislation, employers are required, as far as is reasonable and practicable, to provide appropriate breaks and facilities for employees who wish to breastfeed their infants or express milk during work hours. In 2010, a Code of Employment Practice on Infant Feeding was released, which provides advice on the meaning of "reasonable and practicable", and provides guidelines on how employers can ensure they comply with this legislation (NZ Department of Labour, 2010).


There is a family entitlement to two hours of paid "nursing" leave per day during the first year after the birth. If mothers are not breastfeeding, this leave can be shared between mothers and fathers, such that "nursing" includes other means of feeding a newborn. Breastfeeding mothers can access this leave for as long as they are still breastfeeding (Wall & Leitão, 2014).

United States

A small number of states have laws that provide mandates for workplace support of breastfeeding, but there is considerable variation in what these laws require of employers (Vance, 2005).

Another important issue is for breastfeeding mothers to have access to facilities at work that enable them to continue breastfeeding or to express breast milk. Not having access to such facilities may mean they delay their return to work, or that they cease breastfeeding sooner than they would like (Cohen & Mrtek, 1994).

There are also health and safety implications for women who need to fit breastfeeding (or expressing of milk) into their workday. In European countries, the EU Council Directive 92/85/EEC addresses the health and safety aspects of pregnant workers, women who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding (Council of European Communities, 1992). For these women, employers must evaluate whether there is a need to temporarily alter working conditions or hours of work, offer alternative work, or otherwise offer a period of leave. This seems to apply more to the actual scheduling of work, rather than the workplace facilities.

3.6 Carers' leave

It can be a particular strain for workers to manage their work and family commitments when family members require care because of an illness, disability or old age. Most often, this is relevant to parents needing short-term leave to care for sick children. However, some workers may have longer term carer obligations that cause issues with work-family balance. The policies that help parents or carers are likely to vary considerably according to the nature of the caring responsibility. For example, care needs of a resident child with a short-term illness are very different from those of an elderly parent whose health may be declining, and may not live with or even close by to the carer. The protracted nature of this type of care and the unpredictability of what will be required can make it difficult to fit it within policies that may originally have been designed with the short-term care of children in mind.

Several countries offer short-term leave to cover workers with caring responsibilities, while others have considerable long-term carer leave arrangements. See Box 7 for examples.

Box 7: Examples of carers' leave arrangements


There are different forms of leave available for caring. Unpaid leave of up to 10 days per year is available for employees to deal with unexpected or sudden circumstances, which can include illness of a member of the household. Employees may take leave of 12 months full-time or 24 months part-time (in blocks of one to three months) to look after a seriously ill family member, for which benefits are paid, as they are for parental leave. Similarly, up to two months of leave can be taken for palliative care, also paid as for parental leave (Merla & Deven, 2014).


All employees are eligible for periods of unpaid leave of up to 3 days to care for sick children, and most collective agreements further extend this period. More extensive leave arrangements (or access to part-time work) are available for those caring for a child with a serious illness or disability, or for a relative "at the end of life" (Fagnani et al., 2014).

The Netherlands

Short-term carers' leave of up to 10 days a year is available for workers to look after sick family members, including a child living at home, a sick partner or parent (paid at 70% of earnings). Further, unpaid long-term leave can be used to care for a child, partner or parent with a life-threatening illness, conditional on approval by their employer. (den Dulk, 2014).


Carers can access temporary parental leave of up to 120 days per year per child to care for a sick child, paid at up to 78% of earnings, capped. This can be used to fund someone else to care for the family member.(Duvander et al., 2014).

When employees do not have access to paid carers' leave, other forms of leave, such as sick leave or annual (personal) leave may be used to provide care for sick family members. For example, in the US, in most states, public sector employees are able to use their paid sick leave (if eligible) to care for family members. For private sector employees, this is only so in six states. Californian employees can access paid leave to care for family members (Sloan Work and Family Research Network, 2007).

3.7 Sick leave and annual leave

Having access to paid sick leave and holiday leave is important for personal reasons (and in the case of sick leave, is a public health issue). Lack of access to such leave or when it has to be used for caring responsibilities instead of their intended purposes can have flow-on effects for both work and family. Having no sick leave, or no paid sick leave, has implications for the health of the worker affected and their family, and also for others in the workplace if it means they continue to work while sick (Gault & Lovell, 2006). This may be especially difficult for those who cannot afford to take time off, or who risk losing a job if they take time off (see, for example, Clawson & Gerstel, 2014).

Holiday or annual leave is meant to provide a reprieve from work, and when it is not available or must be used for pursuits that do not provide opportunities for rest, relaxation or pleasure, then employees may be at increased risk of the effects of overwork (Dennis, 2004). In the EU, all workers are mandated to have access to a minimum entitlement of four weeks of paid annual leave (European Trade Union Confederation, 2008). Some countries offer more leave to reduce the length of the average work week (with weekly work hours calculated as an average over a year). For example, Fagan (2003) reported that at 2002 the statutory minimum period of annual leave was 25 working days in Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Spain and Luxembourg; 22 days in Portugal; and 21 in Norway. Some collective agreements, or specific employers, offer more than the minimum entitlement (Gornick, Heron, & Eisenbrey, 2007).

Having an entitlement to some paid leave is important; however, it is also relevant to note that workers do not always take the leave to which they are entitled. This has been noted as being particularly an issue in Japan and Korea, for example (Lee, McCann, & Messenger, 2007).

3.8 Career breaks and time credit schemes

A few countries have had in place "career break" schemes, by which employees could take a fairly lengthy period of leave at some stage in their working life. While such leave is not typically designed as a work-family policy, this career break can be used to take care of family responsibilities.

The most significant of these schemes is in Belgium, where all eligible workers have a right to one year of paid "career break" or "time credit" leave over their working life. Employees are not required to specify reasons for taking up time credits; therefore the credits can be used for a variety of purposes, including parental leave or leave to care for an ill family member (including care of children or elderly relatives). In fact, the period of leave may be extended by collective agreement (for up to 36 months) if the leave is used for caring reasons (Merla & Deven, 2014). Morel (2007) stated that "the underlying idea of this new [2001] time credit is that men and women must be given the opportunity to reconcile a professional career with family responsibilities, thanks to flexible entry and exit options" (p. 629).

In some countries, leave is self-funded through time savings credits. For example, the Netherlands' Life Course Savings Scheme (established in 2006) gave employees the option to have up to 12% of their income withheld for later use as payment for leave. While this gave no rights to leave beyond those existing through statutory rights, employees could negotiate with their employer to use this in addition to other leave. Otherwise, they could use it to fund leave that would otherwise be unpaid, or to fund early retirement (Todd, 2004). The scheme has not taken on new participants since January 2012, and transitional arrangements apply to those participating in the scheme prior to this time. 13

3.9 Longer term issues, including pension credits

Considering a longer term perspective, withdrawal from employment to undertake caring can have implications for future earnings. This is so for families with children, and also for those caring for older people. For older workers with caring responsibilities, having to retire from work early or take a break from employment can have serious consequences for the carer's longer term financial security. This can be, to some extent, addressed through government policy. For example, in Canada, the Canada Pension Plan has provisions for those who leave employment temporarily or have to retire early due to caring responsibilities (Neal & Hammer, 2007). Several European countries allow for pension or social insurance credits to accrue during parental leave (see Hegewisch & Gornick, 2008, and refer to Orloff, 2002, for country-level details).

3.10 Summary

Provision of appropriate forms of leave for parents - mothers as well as fathers - in the time following a birth has been one of the approaches (along with provision of child care) given greatest attention by governments around the world in the area of work-family policy. There is very great variation across countries, and also considerable change over time in how this policy approach has been made. Funding issues to some extent contribute to changes in these policies over time, but it appears that greater pressures come about through social change, especially with regard to providing support for policies that might increase the take-up of leave by fathers.

Policies concerning return-to-work arrangements appear widespread with regard to the right to return to the same or similar job, and in section 5 we will discuss policies that address working arrangements on return to work. Above, we noted that several countries provide breastfeeding breaks to mothers, or even to fathers who might be involved in the care of young children.

Parental leave policies have been developed, or revised, in the context of different objectives. Maternity leave and breastfeeding breaks largely concern the health and wellbeing of mothers and children, while paternity leave and parental leave are largely concerned with broader issues of allowing parents to provide (and share) care to young children. Within these forms of leave, measures have been added that encourage the take-up of leave by fathers, with a view to encouraging a more gender equal distribution of caring.

It is important to note that the take-up of parental leave, and the value of this leave to parents, is likely to depend upon how these policies are implemented (employer issues), general views about the take-up of leave, the remuneration of leave, and also the availability of other policies or supports that "fit" with parental leave to allow parents to work (or conversely, support them to remain out of employment).

9 Proposed amendments to the maternity leave directives set a new leave length at 18 weeks, of which 6 weeks (instead of 2) must be taken after the birth, and payment to be at 100% wage replacement (with ceilings allowable). Coverage would extend maternity leave to self-employed workers (Commission of the European Communities, 2008a). To date, these proposed amendments have not gained universal support and so have not been adopted.

10 See Council Directive 2010/18/EU at: <>.

11 It therefore also goes beyond the scope of this paper in many ways, as there are issues for how governments can, more generally, encourage and support breastfeeding, regardless of work status.

12 See C183 - Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 at: <>.

13 For more information, see Life-course Savings Scheme at <>