What About the Employees Who Pick Up the Slack When Coworkers Take Parental Leave?

December 4, 2018

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not require employers to provide any paid time off for new parents. Employees who are covered by the federal Family & Medical Leave Act and meet its requirements may be entitled to up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave, however, and many states have additional leave laws that apply for recent parents.

Whether paid or unpaid, however, an employee’s parental leave can cause logistical and economic complications for employers and the other members of the workforce. Creating further tension is the reality faced by workers who remain in the workforce and “pick up the slack” for the employees who are out on leave. However, recent research shows that employers can resolve these tensions with basic, practical solutions.

Individualism vs. Community: Leave and Fairness

Employees who continue to work while their coworkers take parental leave can find themselves burdened by a significant amount of extra work, resulting in longer hours and added stress, often without additional compensation. This can cause burnout, reduce productivity, and contribute to jealousy or resentment that poisons the work environment.

Once employees return from leave, additional extra “catch-up” time may be necessary for both the leave-takers and their working colleagues, resulting in even more work for everyone. Over the long-term, individuals who take leave may find themselves significantly lagging behind their peers upon their return, and they may suffer long-term consequences related to career advancement.

The individualistic, competitive nature of many American workplaces also can result in a culture that views paying new parents to take time off with their children as “unfair” rather than beneficial to the overall workplace community. However, studies show that people want paid leave for themselves and their coworkers and are willing to do their parts to pick up the slack for coworkers in exchange for the economic security and ability to take time when their own health or family caregiving needs arise.

Paid Leaves Are Good for Business

More and more corporations have begun to offer parental leave as part of their benefits packages, and for good reason: research shows that paid family leave is associated with better job performance and retention among mothers, increased family incomes, and increased economic growth.

For example, a recent study of women who took advantage of New Jersey’s paid-family-leave policy revealed that they were far more likely to be working nine to 12 months after the birth of their child than women who did not. Also, the women who took leave were also 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance and 40 percent less likely to receive food stamps in the year following a child’s birth versus those who did not.

Corporate Policy Solutions to Prevent and Resolve Issues

While state programs in California and New Jersey have shown that paid leave isn’t the “job killer” that business lobbies purport it to be – employee turnover actually decreased in California while loyalty increased, both of which are good for businesses – the logistics of providing leave for employees can be daunting.

Fostering a workplace culture of community rather than strict individualism can help encourage new parents to take leave and other workers to appreciate how this leave benefits not only the parent but also the growth and health of the business itself. Surveys, legislation, business trends, and bipartisan leave initiatives show that our overall national culture has shifted towards mandating paid parental leave. Offering inclusive paid leave policies that cover working people at all stages of life – including caring for a new child, an ill parent, or their own serious health issue – can help ensure fairness and prevent resentment in the workplace. This helps develop trust among employees that when they need leave they will be supported by their employer and coworkers.

Changing the 9-to-5, one-size-fits-all interpretation of expectations can be a significant step towards reducing employee frustration and stress. Implementing flexible working arrangements that are available for a wide variety of employees can help workers balance personal and professional priorities. These may include telecommuting, job sharing, time shifting, or other alterations to a more traditional on-site, in-office workday. If you do choose to offer telecommuting or other flexible work arrangements, it is advisable to consult with an experienced employment attorney to ensure you comply with the appropriate workplace safety and wage-and-hour laws (among other considerations).

Another option is to provide more opportunities for leave across the workforce. Programs that allow paid leave for various reasons other than caring for family – like traveling, writing a novel, pursuing additional professional certifications, or engaging in personal growth – can also provide a significant measure of compensation for employees who do not need to take parental leave. Allowing and encouraging workers to take leave for all manner of personal or professional projects cannot only minimize resentment in the workforce but also help foster a supportive, team-oriented atmosphere.


Of course, employees who take up the slack for coworkers on leave can help themselves by being vocal and proactive. A Harvard Business Review article on the subject offers suggestions for those who are struggling to keep up with increased workloads – here are a few tips:

  • Accept reality – if you’re asked to cover for someone on leave, you need to take stock of the extra energy and effort you can give and what you can accomplish.
  • Ask for a plan – because most parental leaves are anticipated well in advance, it’s appropriate for you to request details in advance regarding projects, meetings, deliverables, and deadlines, and to ask the co-worker to notify contacts and collaborators ahead of time via out-of-office messages, internal memos, and other communications.
  • Pause the nonurgent – the burden of your co-worker’s assignments will necessarily cause you to re-prioritize your own workload, which may require you to elevate, delegate, or shelve tasks accordingly.
  • Ask for help – “sometimes when you’re giving help, you also need to ask for it,” which may mean seeking assistance from peers, direct reports, and even superiors. “When you have colleagues out of the office for a month or more, it’s better to be up front… about what you can or can’t do than to allow your or another’s work to significantly suffer.”

Overall, encouraging paid parental, family, and medical leave policies makes economic and practical sense, since nearly everyone will need some time off at some point in their working lives for personal or family reasons. Encouraging a culture that supports these policies helps employees work together and lightens the burden for everyone.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)