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Paid grandparental leave: The future for family-friendly workplaces?

This summer Maarit Jakobsson took a week's paid leave from work to help look after her newborn grandchild. It's part of a trial that allows paid leave for new grandparents at one Finnish firm, allowing them to take more of an active role in the lives of their children's children.

Maarit Jakobsson and her granddaughter Mimmi. Image: Maarit Jakobsson

Maarit Jakobsson has fond memories of the early summer, when she got to spend a whole week with her grandchildren. The grandmother-of-nine works for DNA, a teleoperator in Finland, which is trying out a system of paid leave for any employee who becomes a grandparent this year.

When baby Mimmi was born earlier this year to become the ninth Jakobsson grandchild, Maarit leapt at the chance to spend some quality time with her family.

Jakobsson spent her week of paid grandparental leave with baby Mimmi and her big brothers Iivo and Aku—along with her daughter Noora.

They spent the time at their summer cottage in Alahärmä, western Finland.

"It took hours and hours to warm the sauna with wood, as the boys love to add more logs," remembers Jakobsson. "Then we went for bike rides and made good food. The kind of enjoyable quality time together that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't had this leave."

Family-friendly Finland

There is a wealth of evidence (siirryt toiseen palveluun) of the positive effect of child-grandparent relations but up to now grandparents have not had the right to time off work when a new baby joins their family.

Finland has broad parental leave rights enshrined in law. Fathers get nine weeks of paid leave, some of it at full pay, while mothers can be away from work for up to three years while retaining their job. The amount of benefit they receive declines the longer they are away.

Despite this broad provision for nuclear families, the Family Federation of Finland is not resting on its laurels. It's instigated a "Family-friendly workplace" project to try and ensure Finnish work-life balance improves even further. The project promotes flexibility to allow employees to work part-time, take family leave and plan shifts around family commitments. The project also promotes a dialogue on family issues between employer and workforce.

After an employee suggested grandparental leave, DNA decided it was worth a shot.

"The grandparental leave is meant to be used for time with the family," said Marko Rissanen, DNA's Senior vice president responsible for HR issues. "Many young mothers and fathers don’t have a strong support network nearby, so it is important that grandparents can be there when they are needed."

Maarit Jakobsson's grandkids relaxing after sauna. Image: Maarit Jakobsson

The firm employs some 1,650 workers, and about a third of them are aged over 46. Employees have to agree the timing with their line manager and the cost to the company is pretty moderate, according to HR director Marko Rissanen.

"Because DNA is a relatively big company, we can take care of these leaves with internal arrangements," said Rissanen. "So grandparental leave will not cause a need to recruit staff and its costs aren’t remarkable. We have also defined in the terms of the leave that it has to be agreed with the supervisor at latest one month before the date of the absence. So I’m happy to state that the new practice has absolutely been worth it."

Lassi Köppä, who runs the Family-friendly workplace project for the Family Federation, lauds DNA as a trailblazer. He has heard of just one other organisation offering grandparental leave, and that is only one day.

Research needed

Köppä says that more research is needed before grandparental leave is an integral part of the package of family friendly working practices.

"It's great that we have that kind of company that tries new things," said Köppä. "We are very interested in finding out how much the leave really helps the grandchildren's situation. So is that time really going to the grandchildren, and does it really help them. We need some kind of assessment and evaluation of the benefits, to find out what grandparents really do with the time."

In the first half of the year, four DNA workers have taken grandparental leave and new applications arrive every month. The company's workforce really appreciates the benefit, says Rissanen.

"Staff value the kind of benefit that allows them to genuinely help and support their children and grandchildren," said Rissanen. "People have also been pleased that we've recognised stepfamilies and adopted grandchildren in implementing the trial."

Mum Nora, 6-year-old Aku, 3-year-old Iivo and baby Mimmi. Image: Maarit Jakobsson

Maarit Jakobsson says she certainly made the most of the time as she doesn't normally see as much of her grandkids as she'd like.

Quality time to herself for Mum

"Not enough time, anyway, because there are nine of them and they are in three different directions," said Jakobsson. "You can't be everywhere when you have your own life to lead as well. I try anyway, as much as I can. If not every week then at least every fortnight."

She found that helping out with the older children was a big help, even if baby Mimmi is still pretty attached to her Mum Noora.  She says she got to know the family's daily routine in a new way.

"I was able to be close to the family and especially when the baby is small and get to know them, to offer some help and support," said Jakobsson. "It brought me closer to my daughter, when we can be together for a whole week, dawn till dusk."

It's also a chance to allow a new Mum to get some much-needed time to herself.

"When the sauna was nice and warm then I'd take Mimmi and say 'go and have a sauna in peace, the boys are sleeping, it's okay," said Jakobsson.