Many Americans Believe We Abuse Paid Leave at Work

If it’s there, you should take it.

Photo: vi-go/Flickr

Paid family and medical leave is a pleasant bonus in many workplaces but according to a recently released Pew Research Center study, many who have that benefit support it but think that their coworkers who use it are abusing it.

Americans Love Paid Family Leave-Just Maybe Not When Others Take It

The nationally representative survey found that while a majority supports paid family and medical leave of all kinds, 55 percent of Americans think it’s at least somewhat common for workers to abuse it by taking time off from work when they don’t need to. Maybe they think their coworker is feigning illness to get paid time off, or that their boss doesn’t need paid leave after giving birth.

What’s worse is that this negative attitude towards others in the workplace who choose to take the paid family and medical leave impacts your willingness to do so. Over half the people surveyed said they took less time off than they wanted or needed after having a child. At face value, these facts seem crazy; why wouldn’t you take the time if you were offered the time, when you so clearly needed it?

According to the study, guilt and unemployment were two of the biggest factors, with the fear that taking time off work — time that is completely justified and provided to you by your employer — would hurt their chances of advancing their career.

Worrying about the future of your work once you get back to work is completely valid and rings especially true for mothers who return to work after having a child.

New moms often return to jobs with fewer responsibilities and face bias in the workplace, resulting in lower pay — a phenomenon known as the “motherhood penalty.” For every child a woman has, she earns 4 percent less over her lifetime, research from University of Massachusetts sociologist Michelle Budig has found. Men, on the other hand, get a “fatherhood bonus” — a 10 percent bump in earnings when they have kids.

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And if you’re a new mom facing the stress of that role while also worrying about whether or not your job will still be there when you return, the time off you take is tarnished by that anxiety.

If you work for a company with a generous paid time off policy, it can often feel like a trap. The last company I worked for had unlimited paid time off, with the caveat that you’d have to get permission from your manager before, say, jetting off to Thailand for three months or something. Presented with that option, most of us took the time off in the carefully-managed chunks you’d expect from someone who was rationing 2 weeks’ vacation over the course of a calendar year. For the brave souls whose confidence levels outpaced my own — the ones who were always going to Miami for a long weekend, like, every other weekend — I admired and resented them in equal measure.

What I’m most curious about is how this plays out in the real world. I don’t have kids, but I can imagine that if I were presented with three months’ paid time off for medical or family leave, I’d be wary. What about you?

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