Canada’s system of parental leave is about to undergo major changes next year as the government moves to allow new parents to take employment insurance benefits for 18 months. But what does parental leave look like in Sweden, a country often praised for offering generous income replacement and encouraging fathers to take an active role in a child’s early years?

The system provides for parental leave of 480 days (about 16 months), with 90 of them reserved for each parent. As for benefits amounts, the system replaces 77.6 per cent of earnings up to an annual income of 448,000 Swedish kronor (about $68,000) for the first 390 days. That translates into a daily payment of 952 kronor (about $145). For the last 90 days, the system pays a flat rate of 180 kronor ($27) per day.

Read: How to bridge the parental leave divide

The system is very popular, says Stina Jakobsson, a social insurance expert at Unionen, the largest union in Sweden. “It really enables you to be a parent and still have a decent income during the time when children are small.”

As a result, the majority of Swedes take advantage of parental leave, says Ann-Zofie Duvander, associate professor of sociology and demography at Stockholm University. Mothers, she notes, usually take a year off, while fathers tend to take three to four months.

“The generous benefit level is one of the main reasons people are using [parental leave] so much,” says Duvander, adding that many employees also receive top-up benefits through provisions in collective agreements.

Father must use it or lose it

Sweden’s system is also notable for provisions that encourage new fathers to use some of the parental leave, says Linda Haas, a retired professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The system sets aside three months for fathers exclusively, she notes, adding that “if they don’t use it, the family has three months less of parental leave during the child’s first year of life.”

It’s the norm for fathers to take time off work to care for a child, says Duvander. “If you’re a father in Sweden and you say, ‘I’m not going to take any parental leave,’ all your colleagues will question you. You’ll have to explain yourself. It’s expected that both fathers and mothers should be home with the child.”

Read: Move to 18-month parental leave criticized as ‘misguided’

But as with most things, there are drawbacks. While longer leave may seem beneficial, it can actually hurt one’s career, according to Haas. “When you take women out of the labour market for long periods of time, they suffer economically. It’s a tremendous amount they earn less over time . . . because it signals to employers that they’re not as serious about work.”

Nevertheless, Sweden does offer support to parents to manage the return to work, says Haas. Swedes can use some of their parental leave until the child is 12 years old and they can gradually return to work on a reduced workload. They also have access to affordable childcare.

Challenges for employers

While employers generally support the parental leave system, some find certain provisions to be challenging. “Practically, it means your workforce planning process needs to be very robust and that you have to plan for tentative longer leaves,” says Johan Mildner, vice-president of human resources group functions at Sweden-based Sandvik AB. For example, Mildner notes the company’s executives will allocate a higher headcount to departments because they know some full-time employees may go on parental leave at any point in time.

Read: Just 38% of U.S. employers offer paid parental leave

Many parents also save some of their leave to use when their children are in school, says Mildner.

“This possibility is less favourable for the employer and could be reconsidered,” he says, noting Sweden’s holiday provisions are already very generous.

Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

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Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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