Some companies are rolling back the more generous parental-leave policies they implemented over the past two years. Others are considering or doubling down on return-to-office mandates, a blow to the flexibility that can make work more sustainable for parents and caregivers.

To better understand the impact of the latest developments, we reached out to Lauren Smith Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester and author of the book by the same name. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

It’s been reported that some organizations are resetting parental leave back to their pre-pandemic norms. Are you seeing any similar rollbacks right now of institutional support for caregivers?

It’s interesting. The numbers are real, but there are nuances that haven’t been discussed in the media reports about the decreasing availability of parental leave that paint a more accurate picture of the supports being rolled out for parents. There’s a lot of nuance. Like everything else that employed caregiving people have to navigate, it is on the employee who’s in the thick of the mess to be the one to figure it out, advocate for it, change it, talk about how it’s not fair. If you’re marginalized in any way, that’s especially hard to do.  

So that said, this quote-unquote rolling back of parental leave is happening in the context of a real revolution of caregivers in the workforce who are saying—the term of the month is ‘quiet quitting,’ but people are generally resetting to the degree that they have the privilege to do. They’re resetting their priorities to more holistically look at both their paid work and unpaid work as collectively valuable, and they’re saying, ‘I don't want to work for people who don't support my ability to have a life that works and it feels worthwhile.’ If Covid did anything, it just showed us how precious life is, and so you want to use the one you've got in the best way.

So what’s also happening—and it's important to say that is not an excuse, but it is an explanation—is that employers are becoming more sensitive to making their policies inclusive. If they had just had maternity leave before and they're adding paternity leave, and then they want to even them up, they're robbing Peter to pay Paul a little bit and making them meet in the middle. Or if they had a primary caregiver leave and a secondary caregiver leave, which was a well-intended trend five to 10 years ago that fell along very gendered lines and didn't work. Because any parent is everybody's primary, right? In the moment that you're caring, especially if you are a partner caring for someone who is postpartum, you are their primary caregiver, even if they are primarily caring for the child.

So when that sort of fell away, I think people have again been reflexively wanting to make things fair. The same thing is true if you have not included adoptive parents in the past. People are making their policies more inclusive of different ways to build a family. They’re including surrogacy benefits or egg freezing. The Monopoly money was never distributed fairly in the first place. As plans are trying to be more inclusive of the different stages of caregiving, including elder care, including benefits for parents who have older children, children with disabilities, spousal care, self care, the money's all coming from the same pot.

The other trend that's happening is that people are realizing that they're so sensitive to being discriminatory and they want to make the policies even between salaried employees and hourly wage employees. Often the corporate workforce at a big business is a much smaller number than the overall employee count, which is going to include fulfillment-center operators and drivers and people doing manual labor who are paid by the hour or in shifts. So that's another category of ways in which it's been evened up.

So that's my suspicion about what's happening, and the intentions are actually good. They’re trying to make things fair and inclusive for everybody, but they’re not doing it with more funding overall. And ultimately it's not good for parents, because we know research shows that the inflection point of becoming a parent is really a make-or-break point for a lot of people in their careers about whether or not they're going to keep going in the workforce.

And then the other thing that's happening—I would be really curious to see the data broken down state by state, but I wonder if a lot of those rollbacks are happening in states that have started to implement paid family leave. A lot of them have ramp-up plans or have passed the legislation, but then because of Covid delayed the implementation. For instance, I know Oregon passed it a while ago, but the latest predicted date of the rollout is September 2023. So if you're pregnant now, you're not getting in.

One thing that I talk about a lot in my work is this normalization of a very, very arbitrary number of 12 weeks. When you look at the states that have started to roll out paid leave, and when you look at the companies that have adopted it or have rolled it back, everybody seems to coalesce around 12 weeks. And 12 weeks doesn't mean anything developmentally in terms of what's happening with the baby or what's happening with the birthing parents' body necessarily. Babies aren't built to be sleeping by then. The new American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations would have birthing parents offering breast milk until two years, and even before those new recommendations, it was one whole year. They have a recommendation that the baby sleep in the same room as an adult for the first six months, based on research about SIDS, which obviously scares the bejesus out of everybody. But when you weigh the risks, isn't it riskier actually to have a parent who's trying to wake up to work a 7:00 am shift at their hourly wage job who hasn't slept all night because the baby's been hearing every single cough and sneeze? I would think that that's actually riskier.

So the 12 weeks thing is really, really, really, totally arbitrary. And yet as a culture, that's the number that we've normalized because of FMLA, which stipulates that you have the right to an equal job to be held for you for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. And not everyone in America has access to it. Just barely over half of workers are even eligible for FMLA in the first place. But we've all taken this number of 12 weeks and just totally run with it. Everyone's like, ‘Did you get your whole 12 weeks?’ If I hear that phrase, it just makes me want to throw something, because it's made a whole generation of mothers think that something's wrong with them if they don't feel back to normal by like 12 weeks plus one day. And in reality, very few people can actually afford to take three months of unpaid leave. So they're taking a whole lot less and it's having all kinds of bad health outcomes for families. The number is 25% of American moms go back to their paid work within two weeks.

All of this context adds up to the fact that with paid family and medical leave falling out of Build Back Better—and it was only ever meant to be 12 weeks, there’s that number again—it is now more incumbent than ever on the states and on the private sector to offer paid leave. But that means that once again, those with means are going to have access. Those with the better jobs, those with the higher-paid jobs. You have lower-wage workers who are just going to be further and further left behind. It’s an enormous problem in the work that I do.

My bias is that I mostly work for pretty progressive places because they have a budget for somebody like me to consult and speak and help their new parents. So what I'm seeing among my clients is they're becoming more and more thoughtful about how to support parents and all caregiving employees, because they see the ROI on it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you build it, they will come and they will stay and they will prosper and they will be amazing leaders and they will pay off. The timeline on that is not 10 years. It's like six months. Just support someone through their return to paid work after leave, and you will hang on to them and you will have a loyal employee, which in this environment is pretty rare.

So it's tough because while it shouldn't have to be on the private sector, and while that further exacerbates so many of the inequities in America in our economy, I certainly want to applaud and give attention to employers who are doing the right thing. And the right thing at this point does include offering the same leave and same benefits and same supports to your salaried employees and your hourly wage employees. I know it gets complicated if folks are unionized.

But the big point I want to make is that when you claim that you are diminishing one group's access to a benefit for equitable reasons, because you want to even things up, that's fine if that group already had or exceeded the amount of humane benefit that they needed. But in reality, we know that all of the research shows that six paid months is the minimum that protects mom's mental health, mom's physical health, partner’s bonding with the baby, baby's likelihood of being vaccinated, getting all their vaccines on time, baby's health. All of that research has been around since long before 1993, when FMLA was signed into law. It was meant to be like a stopgap, a band-aid, until they could build on it and make it better. And they have never been able to. So all of this just calls for the need for a federally protected paid family and medical leave, and for erasure of this idea of 12 weeks as normalized, because it's not healthy. We can't have a workforce that is unhealthy trying to raise the next generation who will then go on to contribute to the economy.

On the other side of things, are there any gains in employer support from the past two years that you see sticking around for the long haul?

Two main things. The childcare industry crisis is terrible, but the attention on it has really helped employers see so clearly that without childcare, their employees can't operate at full capacity. There’s a return on investment of offering a childcare stipend, backup childcare, all kinds of things that sound like bells and whistles, but that are actually vital for parents to be able to have in order to do their paid work effectively. They're not standard yet, but in some fields like big law and tech, if you don't have a backup daycare, you're behind. You're not going to attract and retain employees who are fantastic. Your number of women in leadership is going to plummet.

The other thing that I'm seeing is that people are starting to adopt ramp-up programs and ramp-down programs for people to come in and out of family or medical leave, which is where you protect someone's income, knowing that their deliverables, their output, however you measure it is going to be prorated as they steer step back into their job.

So those are two big trends. The softer skills stuff is harder to quantify. Hybrid work, flexible work, new ways of measuring people's productivity—for a certain segment of job seekers or potential job seekers, those things are musts. It's a privilege to even be able to look at those kinds of jobs, but for a certain segment of the professional population, they're never going back to not having options or being told face time is the most important thing.

We’re now past the Labor Day inflection point that a lot of organizations were using to kickstart their return-to-office plans. What guardrails can teams or leaders put in place to make sure that any existing culture of flexibility for parents is preserved in the move back to in-person work?

Data points are really, really helpful. So is communication. Those are probably really obvious answers, but I think helping everyone on a team understand the terminology. Giving people a term like proximity bias helps you look out for it. Ten years ago, people weren't talking about implicit bias. Now we know what that is. So you're likely to be more sensitive to it and thoughtful about it. Use the terminology that's out there and normalize it, so that it doesn't become, ‘Who's a bad boss versus a good boss?’ or ‘Who has people skills and who doesn't?’ but ‘It’s a common goal that we all have to avoid proximity bias to offset the motherhood penalty.’ So some of it is really about education.

What does helping people understand the terminology really look like in practice?

Can I say it looks like bringing me in to give a webinar? It is management training. It’s assuming that we're all biased, and we all need to be educated and helping people understand that they should be open about the mistakes that they make. Fostering a culture where people are really open to postmorteming things and problem-solving in a way that lets people be proud of learning from mistakes.

And not encouraging people to ‘fake it till they make it.’ That phrase—I just want to bury it. I usually think of it in terms of new moms. Don't fake it till you make it. You've got to be open about what's hard for people to help solve the problems that you're facing. If you pretend it's all easy, you're not helping yourself, you're not helping the people around you know how to help you. And you're not helping make progress in your organization or our broader culture. Please know that when you're a little bit transparent about this stuff, you're helping make progress. Not everybody can be transparent about it, so whatever degree you can be, know you're making progress also for the people around you who might not have all the kinds of privilege that you have.

But it takes a really kind of nuanced approach to management training. It takes leadership that is open and honest about their own steps. It takes people not being so terrified of cancel culture that they can't discuss the ways that they made mistakes in the past and learned from them. We're sort of at this funny eye of the storm of people being both more open-minded and inclusive than ever, and also more terrified that something from their past is going to come and bite them. That sounds a little bit off topic for maternity leave and paternity leave, but so much of it really is about soft skills.

We need a new term for soft skills because it sounds reductive or not as important as something that is a KPI, but it is. The other lesson is to start measuring and rewarding anything that your employees do that is retention-building. If they're involved in employee resource groups, give them resources and reward them and make sure that that comes up in their annual reviews. I would love to see any way of measuring retention-building activities in this economy in particular, and let's normalize it forever. I would love to see that stuff paid at time and a half, because its value is so exponential to the organization. When you have a new parent leave, when you add up the cost of replacing them and the cost of retraining someone, what often doesn't get measured is the morale. What happens to everyone they work with? How do you avoid a domino effect? How do you avoid having everybody then take on so much more work and get burned out, especially in a time when they know the word burnout and they're really sensitive to it? The investment in keeping someone and in rewarding your employees for retention-building, mentoring, all of the soft-skills stuff, really will pay off.

With the state of the economy and more employers focusing on productivity and cutting budgets, what can working caregivers do to make sure they keep getting the support they need?

I have one law firm that I do most of my one-on-one coaching with that's only a small part of my business, but what I tell every single one of those women is keep keep a ‘note to self’ Google doc that documents every single thing you do that helps the firm that is not necessarily a billable hour. The first step in any negotiation is convincing yourself, so you have to see the value that you are bringing, even if it is being measured in ways that the leadership isn't used to measuring it yet. Because all of that stuff is ultimately what's going to keep people delivering. You have to stay in order to produce.

So what can employees do? I think really be deliberate about figuring out what parts of the last two years worked for you, and which were satisfying. You're not going to be able to hang on to every single one of them, but you can prioritize a list of two or three or four that were most important to you, that let you, at the end of the day, feel like you had a satisfying day in both your unpaid and paid work. Advocate and ask for those things, because this is a rare window of opportunity.

That window, door, whatever you want to call it, it's not closed yet. All the help-wanted signs are still out. Employers know that they have to do better for you, and you are the one in the thick of the childcare needs, the healing from birthing a human, whatever it is that you're going through. You are the one who's going to know best what it is you need. So you have to see it as part of your job to actually communicate those needs.

And then you need to communicate them in a way that is mutually beneficial for both you and your employer. What I see all the time with new moms in particular is that very often, it’s the first time they've ever negotiated for something like flexibility or a pay increase. There's a lot of people who just never asked for it until they had a baby and they had a reason, and suddenly you're negotiating for the first time with the highest stakes ever: the health and illness of your family, your ability to keep going in your career. It all feels very do or die. And one thing that can help is knowing that actually it's part of your job to figure out what it would take to keep you going. What could you ask for now and propose in a way that makes sense for everybody, that would allow you to still be doing your job in a year? That’s a really good question for any employee who has a caregiving need to ask themselves, and to think, ‘What investment could I make in myself or could my employer make in me that would let me keep going?’

When you think of it that way, and you realize that your value is in your longevity and also in your ability to represent a need that other people you work with aren't able to bring forward, you can suggest it in a way that shows that actually, this is a retention building tool, and show the ROI on it. And it's not just for me and my family life. I want to be able to do bath time, yes, but it's also for the sustainability of caregiving employees at our whole company. Then all of a sudden that has legs.

Is there a point at which you see that door closing?

From what I see in the businesses I work with, so much is predicated upon the fiscal year—if it ends in October, if it ends in February, if people are waiting around for their bonuses if it's a bonus-driven industry. The door tends to open and close very cyclically. There's a lot lost in the effort of opening and the effort of closing. If we actually did the math on it, just keeping it ajar the whole time would probably be more profitable. This is all super speculative on my part that I'm saying it this way, but there's so much energy that goes into rebooting after the fiscal year has ended, with the petering out of like the effort at the end of the year once everything that you've done has been accounted for. People should feel like their success is measured consistently and in ways that aren't just about money and time, but about their larger contribution the whole year round.

Because you mentioned it earlier: What’s your take on quiet quitting?

I don't think it's that people are trying less hard. I think it might look that way to managers who are measuring trying in old ways. But I think people are wise to the fact that face time is not necessarily where it's at, and that over-delivering on your paid work means you are robbing from your unpaid work. Ultimately it's an investment in your ability to keep going at all. If you can work at 90% capacity instead of a hundred percent and still get your job done, but then go to sleep happy at night and imagine that you're going to be able to keep doing this thing a year from now, two years from now, that's a good business decision.

But I think it's also that a lot of the people who are really concerned about quiet quitting potentially have some like survivor bias of their own. I see this a lot: If you have only leadership involved in figuring out what the benefits policies are and the support of new parents should be, that's a mistake. You have to include all levels of employees in those benefits discussions and decisions, because you're not going to be aware of what it's like for the people who are most in need of those benefits at this moment. If you are a senior leader who for some reason or another was able to stick with it, you're not actually representative of all of the people with potential underneath you who, with all best intentions, you'd really like to support. It's important as a leader to understand what it was that you had working in your favor, whether you had an amazing sponsor, whether you were in no way marginalized, whether you had financial resources that gave you a head start, whether you had a partner who was doing all of the domestic work at home with your children as you were coming along in career. Maybe it's something truly biological about your body. Maybe you are just fricking brilliant with a 200 IQ, or maybe you only need four hours of sleep a night. But there is some special sauce that you probably had to get to leadership that is not necessarily accessible to the people underneath you. So it's really important when you're making these decisions, which so many people do with all best intentions, to bring in the voices and encourage the solutions of the people who are really in the thick of needing these supports.

All of this leads to a whole different point, which is that if you are changing your policies in any way that's going to rob employees of time with their infants that they thought they were going to get—first of all, don't. But if it's happening, grandfather people in. Gestation is 40 weeks. If you have an employee who's been doing IVF, it's almost like they're pre-gestating and then they're gestating, and it could be much longer than 40 weeks. If you have an adoptive family that's been waiting for a baby. You can't provide egg freezing and adoption benefits and then not support what happens when the baby comes. So I would really recommend grandfathering folks in, even if the thing is adding a benefit that is like additional and additive. Like, say you are adding a backup childcare benefit for the first two years of life, or something else that you didn't have before. Then I would want to make sure that anyone who has a two-year-old turning three could still qualify.

It's such a sensitive time, new parenthood, and all of the negotiations that parents of kids of any ages and people with elder care needs do are so sensitive, that I would almost think of your benefits plan as resentment-proofing your employees. A lot of the work that I do, like when I do one-on-one coaching or when I'm speaking to a big audience, is research and strategies, but it's also ways to combat the resentment that we feel about working in conditions that aren't supportive of being a human, and not having the structural support that in so many other cultures around the world is normalized.

What is the best way for leaders who aren't caregivers to most effectively understand the needs of their employees who are?

So many of these groups of employees have found solace and camaraderie and comfort in ERGs and affinity groups too. They serve an amazing purpose. But I think if you're a leader, it's really, really important not to let your employee resource groups be simply echo chambers. Please let them know that they are there to do exactly what I was describing, which is to bubble up the needs that may not be the lived experience of those in leadership right now, and to bring them to you. Build some kind of communication strategy tool, whatever you want to call it, that allows your ERGs to communicate what their communities are needing, feeling, wanting up to leadership.

The other piece of that is, as soon as you make that part of their job to do, you need to reward them for the work. Employee resource groups can't just be groups of people complaining to each other about how this is so hard. They need to know that there's a way for them to bring their creativity, their solutions, their needs to management. And so it's up to management to help build the structure for them to do that and for them to be rewarded for doing so.

When you say rewarded, do you mean compensated?

Nothing feels more valuable than being paid money. It's really simple. So yes, I do think that people should be rewarded for it. But giving them access to tools through their ERG is also value. Giving their ERGs budgets. I'm thoroughly biased in telling you this, because this is a lot of what I do, but giving them a budget to bring in a great speaker who's going to support them with resources they can't get internally. Giving them the day to go have an offsite, because you believe that the value of that time together will come back to the larger organization. Giving them more than a day. Giving folks access—people who wouldn't necessarily be in meetings with the highest-level folks, giving them access because they're involved in the ERG to being able to meet you and hear from you. Those things have value too.

Anything else that you wanted to be sure to mention?

I wish the headline on those stories had been, ‘We really need federally protected paid leave because it shouldn't have to be on the private sector to determine this shit.’ Good on them when they're getting it right. But when they get it wrong, they're further dividing the country between people who have access and resources and those who don't.