New Forum Seeks Consensus on Leave Challenges

When it comes to the best ways to manage leave in today’s complicated world, American employers clearly have a problem.

According to new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, labor-force participation among U.S. men and women ages 25 to 54 has been declining for nearly 20 years. By comparison, Canada has not seen this decline. And, the report says, 75 percent of the difference between the two countries can be explained by the growing gap in the labor-force participation of women.

The reason? For one thing, Canada offers extensive parental leave. The Federal Reserve study estimates that if the U.S. could just reverse the trend in participation of prime-age women to match Canada, it would see 5 million additional prime-age workers join its labor force.

Along those same lines, Ovia Health, a women’s health-support company, found that 64 percent of 2,000 women it surveyed make the decision to leave their job before they have their child. According to Paris Wallace, CEO of Ovia Health, a member of the National Business Group on Health, that number indicates employers need to offer maternity benefits that support women from the beginning of a pregnancy through return-to-work. They survey found, for example, that 84 percent of mothers with six weeks of paid parental leave returned to their employer, versus 56 percent of mothers with less than six weeks of paid leave.

“If employers fail to do so [offer paid parental leave], they could be facing a cost of up to two hundred percent of that employee’s salary to replace women who leave,” she says.

Clearly, despite the many attempts to solve it, leave management remains an ongoing issue for American employers. To help create best practices that could turn the tide and get people back into the workforce–or not stay out in the first place–the NBGH has teamed up with close to 50 U.S. employer members, industry partners and subject-matter experts to launch the Leave Optimization Forum.

LuAnn Heinen, NBGH’s vice president of wellbeing and workforce strategy, says the Forum is a major initiative to help employers enhance leave-management programs to better meet the needs of a diverse and changing workforce. Participating members include Amazon, Aon, Cigna, Darden, Dell, Facebook, General Electric, General Mills, PepsiCo, Prudential, Unum and Willis Towers Watson. Ophelia Galindo, Amazon’s global director of leave of absence, disability and accommodation at Amazon, serves as Forum chair.

Beyond parental leave–paid or unpaid–leave management also includes leave such as paid time off, vacation or sick leave; disability and absence programs (short-term disability), and caregiving and bereavement leave.

Heinen says the Forum seeks to create a shared understanding of “what’s working and not working” for large employers, with the focus on taking identifying best practices and common challenges, frustrations and gaps in solutions. The Forum also plans to create consensus around the gaps, set priorities and seek solutions in the marketplace and policy arena, she says.

“By bringing experts together, the Forum aims to share the challenges and opportunities around leave and absence management policies and their intersection with health, wellbeing and productivity,” Heinen says, adding that the goal is to identify and share strategies and solutions that employers can leverage when designing and evaluating their leave programs including:

  • New approaches to stay at work and return to work;
  • Model approaches and products for trending leave topics including parental and family leave policies;
  • Tools to navigate current mandated paid sick and family leave requirements;
  • Potential game-changing technology including shift-swapping apps and return to work engagement platforms;
  • Intersection of leave and behavioral health; and
  • Employer case studies highlighting integrated approaches to leave and absence management.

Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader for absence disability management at Willis Towers Watson, says employers are faced with two difficult dynamics: the continuous addition of mandated state paid-leave programs and the employee workforce demanding more paid leave and flexibility to meet their needs.

“This has created an urgent need for employers to find viable solutions,” she says. “The NBGH initiative brings together employers with industry experts that are willing to share best practice insights, innovative approaches and a voice to the legislative community that can transform the way organizations manage leave of absence programs.”

General Mills, the global food company, NBGH member and forum participant, recently made changes to its leave policy that include 18 to 20 weeks of paid maternal leave, 12 weeks paid parental leave and two weeks caregiver leave. Jacqueline Williams-Roll, General Mills’ chief human resources officer, says the company is modernizing benefits to better align with the needs of an ever-evolving workforce.

“We spent a lot of time talking with employees at different life stages and asking questions about their pain points and what contributes to feeling torn between work and home,” she says. “Out of those discussions, we developed a strategy to focus on these moments when employees really need support the most.”

In addition to listening to its employees’ needs, Williams-Roll says, General Mills’ partnership with NBGH is critically important for the company to benchmark its efforts externally.

Leston Welsh, vice president and head of disability and absence management for Prudential Group Insurance, says employers should be thinking about three common shortfalls regarding leave management.

One is to provide a holistic offering to employees to keep their benefits offering competitive. For example, more employers have begun providing their employees with additional paid time off for specific life events such as paternity/maternity, bereavement and time to care for family members who need care. Therefore, employers should be periodically reviewing their overall benefits offering to ensure they remain competitive.

They also should ensure that the employee experience is seamless. To avoid potential complexity-driven gaps in leave scenarios, Welsh says, employers should be thinking about all these questions as they design, implement and administer these leaves to help employees understand and navigate the process.

“This will help facilitate a seamless claims experience so that they can focus on that life event,” he says.

NBGH’s Heinen says the Forum doesn’t really have a specific timeline to follow. As far as how it will operate, members that have signed on will figure out the best way to work. Most of all, NBGH will help create the best way for every member to report and/or collect information and their best practices. The Forum will have two in-person meetings annually and one virtual meeting.

“It’s really about what our members want to do,” she says.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at