I’m welcoming Linnea Bywall, Head of People at Alva Labs (a digital hiring startup) to the blog with her important guest post on why the world needs to replicate Sweden’s VAB (vård av barn) a benefit system which pays working parents when they need to look after their sick children.
Over to Linnea.
Ill children are an inevitability. This winter, my three year-old daughter was home from daycare almost every other day, plagued by a
We all know the sound of little feet from a 3am visitor, arriving by your bed to tell you they’re ‘not feeling well’ which is immediatley followed with the thought of ‘I hope it’s nothing serious’, and if its not, the next thought of, ‘how will I manage work tomorrow?’.
For most parents, missing work to tend to sick kids is more than just an inconvenience. Its implications stretch from short-term financial worries all the way to how time off might affect their reputation and career progression.
In order to alleviate this unfair burden, Sweden – where I live with my two young children – operates a parental support system called VAB, and I believe other nations would do well to do the same.
Vård av Barn: A Safety Net
In most countries, an ill child leaves working parents with three options: a day of juggling home working and playing nurse, calling on a relative or friend to assist in care duties or taking a day off work, typically in exchange for that day’s salary or a day of annual leave.
Every one of these options comes with its own set of complications, disadvantages and assumed privileges. Sweden’s VAB – standing for Vård av Barn, loosely translating as ‘Care of Child’ is a government-funded scheme that allows parents to take time off work when their children are unwell while still earning 80% of their usual salary (at no cost to their employer).
Parents only need to inform their workplace that they’ll be ‘VABing’ that day – the system is so ingrained in Swedish society that it’s become a verb – and send a notice to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency via their digital platform. It really is that simple.
At its core, VAB is about parental rights. It is a government policy that acknowledges the reality of being a parent and a worker at the same time. This
safety net – which I use on average 10 times a year – supports all parents equally, regardless of their relationship status, support network, or gender.
VAB allows people from every section of society to prioritise caring for their children, levelling the parenting playing field.
Unsurprisingly, the initiative was appreciated more than ever before during the pandemic.
At my own place of work, Alva Labs – a digital hiring startup that promotes inclusivity and diversity in the job market and workplace – VAB is ingrained into our company culture.
Even our male CEO and Co-founder will VAB when the need arises. This example affirms that the system is there to be used: VAB-related meeting changes are not only commonplace, but entirely respected.
‘Mummy Do it!’: Mums Bear the Brunt of Ill Children
In many ways, VAB is the great equaliser. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that on average, mothers still take more VAB days than their male counterparts. A survey by Mumsnet found that 96% of those asked, believe that having children has a negative impact on mothers’ careers, while only 9% thought the same for fathers. Perhaps even more shockingly, the survey revealed that 7% said they would have considered not having children at all if they’d known what the career implications would be.
In Sweden, 73% of women in the country work – only 3 percentage points below male employment rates and 80% of single mothers have jobs. There’s no doubt that these statistics are bolstered by the country’s number of social care schemes like gender-neutral parental leave and heavily subsidised childcare, making it easier to be a good parent and worker simultaneously.
Supporting Working Parents: Policy and Culture
The system in Sweden helps both parents and companies, levelling the playing field for all. When I first joined Alva Labs three years ago, I encountered first-hand how non-problematic it can be to be a working parent. At the time I was seven months pregnant, working for only two months before leaving for a year of parental leave. Not a single eyebrow at Alva Labs was raised (except maybe my own two, as I couldn’t believe at the time, a small startup would hire me).
Now, three years later, Alva Labs has launched in the UK. This has meant that as a team we are putting our heads together on how we can support our employees in a country where VAB doesn’t exist. Drawn from our research, we established three easy-to-implement ways that working parents can be made to feel supported by their employer:
1. Lead from above: leadership and culture are inextricably linked. Much like our own CEO taking VAB days, company leaders are responsible for imprinting values and establishing a culture in which parents’ needs are respected. This trickle-down effect will encourage parents to not be
ashamed of their differing needs.
2. Make it clear: from the job description to official company policy, employers should make it abundantly clear what parental support is available. Whether it’s subsidised days off (so parents can care for ill children), flexible working options, or emergency childcare, these policies
should be written in ink and articulated regularly.
3. Language is king/ queen: if a parent is tending to an unhappy chicken pox-er and so needs to reschedule a call, employers should respond with understanding language, particularly in communication channels that other colleagues can see. It might seem insignificant, but a, ‘we totally understand, I hope they feel better’ will go a long way in fostering a welcoming company culture compared to a silent thumbs up emoji.
Caring for ill children has always come with the territory of parenthood. Until this is truly understood by governments and business leaders, working parents will continue to battle unfair and unbalanced environments.
Parenting ain’t easy, but schemes like VAB sure can help.
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