Why employers must change their approach to leave in 2022

November 9, 2021

Mom on phone holding baby

During the pandemic, remote work put the the realities of caregiving (and the lack of support for caregivers) under a spotlight-- and in a Zoom window. It revealed that almost everyone – whether they’re caring for young children, aging parents, a friend, or their own mental health – has major responsibilities in addition to work.

According to a recent survey1:

  • 56% of employees face caregiving challenges with school-aged children
  • 29% of employees face caregiving challenges for aging parents

Caregiving duties add to existing pandemic stress; many people - mostly women - who have dropped out of the workforce did so because the challenges of full-time work and caregiving were too much to handle.

This has made both employers and employees rethink what’s most valuable in a benefits package. In two recent surveys, both employees2 and employers3 ranked paid leave as the second most important benefit a company could offer.

This shift in paid leave is part of a broader, much-needed transition in HR to a more employee-focused approach.

“Our job more than ever is to stop focusing on counting people and start focusing on making people count,” says Jason Averbook, an HR thought leader and CEO of Leapgen. “And the way we make them count is to focus on where they’re at.”

Treat leave as an expected part of the employee experience

Instead of a legal requirement, or even a recruiting tool, employers should see leave programs as a key part of a holistic HR experience focused on the employee and their needs.

“HR and benefits as an industry is still making a transition from being a compliance-based experience that ensures that I’m protecting my employer, and I’m protecting HR, to a consumer view,” says Polly Nicholas, Senior Vice President of Unum Solutions. “It’s transitioning to someone who is thinking instead of what is happening in retirement, health, payroll; who is the receiver at the other end of those things? Who is that consumer?”

This means ensuring employees are aware and informed of leave programs and know how to apply for leave long before they will need it. It’s making them feel comfortable taking the time they need.

“Paid leave means that, as an employee, I begin to feel like ‘You expect me to take time off,’” she says. “‘You expect me to put my device down, you expect me to turn off my Teams and Outlook. You expect me to care for my whole self.’ What if that was the start of the conversation?”

Design your leave program around employee needs

Employers continue to evolve their thinking on leave, with many tech companies leading the way, offering generous bonding time for new parents. Yet more needs to change to consider the needs of all employees.

“[These tech companies] didn’t consider the human element of that,” says Ellen McCann, Assistant Vice President, Unum Solutions. “They started with these great bonding policies – you can take a year off to bond with your child. Not thinking that there were other employees who might need something different. What about employees who already had their children, or were never going to have children, but were taking care of their parents? There was no caregiving policy. They had to look at those policies and build in some more equity.”

Mom with daughter laughing

Understanding the challenges different workers face – and the fears they may have – is crucial to convincing employees to take much-needed time off.

“You have to think about what you do to allow people to bring their whole selves to work,” says Averbook. “What’s going to matter to a mom, who has to take care of three kids who are suddenly home because of COVID, is going to be completely different than a single woman who doesn’t have that kind of dependence.”

Employers must also plan for these types of absences and recognize that the value of long-term retention may go beyond the needs of any short-term project or goal.

“What happens if you don’t let them take time off? There’s this concept that if we just get more and more work done, we’ll get more and more output,” says Nicholas. “But maybe it’s really about getting clear at the topline what the vision is and how we achieve our business results. It’s stopping to take time to figure out how people are. And if they need to take time off, maybe that means they stay with you. And maybe that’s the more important outcome than the work itself.”

Leverage technology to simplify the application process

An employee seeking leave is likely already in distress. The last thing they need is a complicated and confusing process full of tedious paperwork and unclear requirements.

This is even more true for Millennials, who now make up the largest share of U.S. workers, and Gen Z, who are just now entering the workforce. They’re used to the personalized messages and seamless digital experiences they receive in the consumer market.

Instead of forcing a new mother to navigate a complex phone tree from the hospital or making a 22-year-old employee figure out how to a fax a doctor’s note, make it as intuitive and simple as possible.

“Do it in a digital way, do it in an app, like you order your pizza,” says McCann.


The pandemic has reshaped the relationship between work and home and made employees rethink their relationship to their jobs. Paid leave has taken on a much bigger role in attraction and retention and is a crucial tool for supporting employees through transformative, and often stressful, life changes and unexpected challenges.

1 Willis Towers Watson 2021 Employer Survey Emerging from the Pandemic

2 Unum 2021 Employee Enrollment Survey of 1,462 U.S. workers. Unum Group. August 2021.

3 SHRM, 2020 Employee Benefits Report, 2021.

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