The 2022 Parental Leave Study: do UK workplaces offer sufficient leave for new parents?

9 min
Updated Oct 30th, 2023

Table of contents

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Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced to UK workplaces to allow parents – of children born or placed for adoption on or after April 5, 2015 – to share leave. But very few heterosexual couples take it up. Looking at the figures, the charity Maternity Action estimates the takeup has been between just 3% and 4%.

But this isn’t to say that men don’t want to take shared leave. In fact, our survey suggests a demand for it; but there are hidden barriers preventing a bigger uptake. These include lack of affordability and flexibility, career disadvantage, and women not wanting to transfer and lose their own allocated leave.

At Fertility Family, we provide information to help people wanting to start a family. So we undertook a survey of employees at 116 UK companies to discover whether men and women felt parental leave was sufficient and whether this impacted family life, family planning, and careers. 

We wanted to find out:

  • If the workplace and career can impact the choice to have children
  • If employees have lost out on a promotion or felt disadvantaged 
  • If employees had to turn down a job 
  • How employees want their workplace parental leave policies to improve
  • How employers can adapt to the needs of employees taking parental leave and support their continued professional development

We also wanted to explore the wider issues that can impact these questions, such as the gender pay gap, mental health, age and job security. 

The majority think UK parental leave is “inadequate”

Almost 3 in 5 (57%) employees think their company’s maternity/paternity leave policy and attitude to new parents is inadequate. The key question in our parental leave survey was what employees think about parental leave in the UK, especially when we know that in countries like Iceland and Sweden, men’s uptake is much higher (about 90%), because they offer non-transferable leave for the father. This highlights an urgent need for change — or companies could see their top talent jumping ship to benefit from a more supportive work culture elsewhere. 

A lack of organisational change and flexibility

Looking at the data, it’s not just inadequate policies that are under the spotlight. There is still a significant portion of new parents that, due to poor management, have felt disadvantaged and limited in their careers after taking parental leave: 

  • Almost 1 in 10 employees (9%) felt that management restricted their career progression after they took parental leave — this was experienced equally by both men and women
  • 1 in 6 felt that management reduced their career opportunities after communicating that they planned to take parental leave
  • In employees who thought their career opportunities were reduced, 66% felt their opportunities were restricted prior to taking parental leave, rather than afterwards — potentially missing out on a promotion, project lead or business trips, or being overlooked for open positions

The pandemic has been cited as the reason why discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace has surged. But interestingly, our findings show that this was something particularly experienced by men. 

Nearly double the amount of male employees (19%) in the UK felt management reduced their career opportunities compared to females surveyed (11%), simply because they were going to take parental leave.

The majority think UK parental leave is “inadequate”

Nearly double the amount of male employees (19%) in the UK felt management reduced their career opportunities compared to females surveyed (11%), simply because they were going to take parental leave. 

This highlights:

  1. That internalised stereotypes still exist (men who take parental leave are seen as being less competitive in the workplace)
  2. Low uptake on shared parental leave results in an absence of precedents within a company
  3. Uncertain job security due to a volatile economy, which exacerbates concerns (financial and career) about taking parental leave 

While some have had career opportunities reduced by management, 1 in 20 have turned down a job or not applied for a job directly because of the parental leave policy

And the reason for turning a job down due to the parental leave policy is likely to be that it is not affordable. 9% of people surveyed don’t think the maternity/paternity pay at their current company is enough for their family.

Delaying plans to start a family

Our data shows that an employee’s workplace policy and management can delay plans to start a family. 

Over 1 in 6 (16%) delayed having children because of their career. This demonstrates that there’s a potentially large portion of the UK who are putting starting a family on hold because of work. Taking parental leave and having a baby is costly, so many delay parenthood until they are on a higher salary. Added to this is the fear that taking parental leave will actually damage their career. 

And delays result in older couples trying to conceive, who are then more likely to need fertility treatment such as IVF, with the added stress about taking time off work for procedures. There is no statutory right to time off work for time-consuming fertility treatment, (it comes under medical appointments and within sick leave). 

In fact, almost a quarter of employees (23%) said that the stress of work affected their ability to have children. It’s a vicious circle.

How do employees want parental leave policies to improve?

Flexible working hours (45%) and remote working (45%) are the most popular ‘wants’ from employees to improve parental leave policy on their return to work. Such policies allow parents to work around childcare and the demands of homelife. 

A quarter (22%) of employees want their company to increase their rates of maternity/paternity pay, which comes as no surprise. Having a baby can put a financial strain on a family, with additional new baby costs at the same time as a major drop in income. 

Gender comparisons

  • More women than men are delaying having children because of work: almost 1 in 5 women vs 1 in 7 men. At present, women are more likely to take the bulk of parental leave, so this will impact their career more. The gender pay gap is heavily influenced by motherhood.
  • More men than women - nearly double - feel that their career opportunities were reduced as a result of wanting to take parental leave (19% vs 11%). It is still the norm for women to take the majority of parental leave. Many men want to spend more time with their children, but they are hampered by the stigma attached to men taking leave: they are perceived to be less committed to their job. 
  • More men than women feel that their ability to have children is being affected by the stress of work (26% vs. 21%). Men are more likely to cite that work is a key source of stress. They are usually the higher earner in a heterosexual relationship, with the added pressure to maintain their salary to allow the mother to take maternity leave. 
  • Both men and women (59% and 55%) find maternity/paternity leave policy insufficient. Supplementing paid leave with flexible or home working could help all parents.

How does what men and women want differ?

A time for change

This survey shows that gender stereotypes are still deeply entrenched and that the current shared parental leave policy is flawed and needs an urgent government review.

Fortunately, there are steps that employers can take to reduce barriers for those who would like to plan for a baby but feel unable to because of work. Employers should:

✔ Carefully consider the results of this survey, including the desire for flexibility and home-working on return to work

✔ Normalise taking parental leave, regardless of employees’ gender or sexual orientation

✔  Provide childcare options as part of an essential infrastructure (the UK has the highest childcare costs in the world in proportion to income)

A combination of improved and updated government SPL policy (we hope), and supportive employers, will lead to a fairer future for all working families, with benefits for both employees and employers as a result.

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