Skip to content

Are the world’s richest countries family friendly? Asks new UNICEF report

The simple answer is no, not particularly. In short, parents are struggling with the lack of parental leave and childcare despite the apparent resources of the richer countries.

“Family-friendly policies can help parents with their caring responsibilities, regardless of their work situation. Yet even the world’s richest countries fail to offer comprehensive solutions to all families. Some countries do better than others in guaranteeing paid job-protected leave to mothers and fathers and ensuring children have access to affordable care and preschool education. Others lag far behind.” - Excerpt from ‘Are the world's richest countries family friendly?’ – Family Friendly Policies Report, UNICEF

The recent UNICEF report titled ‘Are the world’s richest countries family-friendly?’ focuses on two key policies - childcare leave for parents and early childhood education and care for preschool children. It reviews these policies in the 41 high- and middle-income countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the European Union (EU).

The report states that the earliest years of a child’s life are the most important to their development and highlights the significance of family-friendly policies in supporting children to get the best start possible, as well as helping parents thrive at home and at work.

The link between family friendly policies and family development

The report reinforces that there is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life. Parents hold the biggest stake in creating the nurturing environment their children need, and governments should give them the resources to do so. Family-friendly policies – including paid parental leave, universal quality, affordable childcare from birth to the first grade of school and breastfeeding breaks – strengthen the bond between parents and their children, which is critical for the development of families and socially cohesive societies.

Who’s leading the way (and who’s lagging behind)?

The report highlights that while Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offer the best family-friendly policies among 31 rich countries with available data, Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, United Kingdom and Ireland rank the lowest.

In many countries, there’s a lack of paid parental leave, with only half of countries offering at least six months of leave at full pay equivalent for mothers. The United States is the only country included in the analysis with no national paid leave policy for mothers or fathers.

It's important to note that for various reasons this 2019 report uses data from 2016 to ensure consistency of data collection across the countries. New Zealand’s parental leave policy, for example, has become significantly more generous since the 2016 data collection and is not reflective here - however the tables in the report still provide some interesting comparative data into the momentum of where many countries are moving on how they support working parents.

Dads not getting enough leave

On the whole, when it comes to parental leave, there is a big gap between maternity and paternity leave. Leave reserved for fathers makes up at least one third of all available paid leave in only four countries -- Iceland, Japan, Republic of Korea and Portugal. In Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain and Sweden, the father’s share is more than a tenth of a total allocated time. In the remaining 19 countries with some paternal leave, the father’s share is less than 10 per cent of total time.

Paid maternity leave, which typically starts just before childbirth, tends to be short, averaging 18 weeks across the OECD and 22 weeks across EU in 2016.

The report also finds that there is a significant lack of paid paternity available to fathers. However, even when fathers are offered paid leave, many do not to take it.

In Japan, the only country that offers at least six months at full pay for fathers, only 1 in 20 fathers took paid leave in 2017. There are numerous studies that indicate fathers do indeed want to take parental leave and spend more time with their children -  which highlights that there are numerous issues at play here that lead to such choices. These include cultural attitudes, stigma and discrimination based on men sharing caring duties.

Childcare crucial but a difficult find

Another issue the report focuses on is that universal access to quality, affordable childcare from birth to children’s entry into the first grade of school is critical for children’s development and for enabling parents to go to work – and thus helping them become more financially stable.

For some parents looking for childcare options, affordability is the biggest barrier. Data from 29 countries highlighted parents of young children in the United Kingdom were the most likely to cite cost as the reason why they do not use childcare centres more.

“There is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life. We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children. And we need the support and influence of the private sector to make this happen.” - Henrietta Fore, Executive Director UNICEF

Are the richest countries really that bad?

The short of it is no, they’re not . . . but this is very much dependant on the company you work for.

In the countries where the government is not meeting the needs of carers there has been enough research to indicate employers that support employees with their work and family life are being sought after. In fact, people are now even expecting this despite Australia’s rather dismal ranking in this report. Why? Because there are progressive employers that are leading by example, ahead of Government policy, on making workplaces more family friendly. Take for example the enhanced parental leave policy announcements by Deloitte, QBE, Baker McKenzie and Norton Rose Fulbright - to name a few just this year.

These employers are committed to developing their family-friendly policies because they increase employee morale, job satisfaction and productivity while reducing absenteeism, disengagement and recruitment costs.

Parents At Work are committed to changing the landscape in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and beyond. We collaborate with employers, policy makers and industry professionals as we know creating family friendly workplaces is a business strength when done well. The future workplace is family friendly no matter how rich or poor a country may be therefore is absolutely worth investing in today.

UNICEF’s three key recommendations

UNICEF is advocating for:

  • At least six months of leave for all parents
  • Safe and comfortable public and work-based places for women to breastfeed
  • Universal access to quality, affordable childcare from birth to children’s entry into the first grade of school

If your organisation would like support to meet these recommendations, please contact info@parentsatwork.com.au

To download the full report ‘Are the world’s richest countries family friendly?’ – Family Friendly Policies Report, UNICEF, visit here.

LISTEN to the podcast about the report and the research below or here.

Excerpts taken directly from report’s ‘Key Messages’.