It’s 2:13 a.m., roughly a week after my daughter, Maya, was born. I haven’t slept for more than three hours at a time. Complex sentences don’t make sense anymore. Only simple phrases will do: Verb noun. Soothe baby. Change diaper. Feed baby.
Seven days. That's all it took for me to go from productive professional to barely functioning, monosyllabic diaper machine. Yet, for all the difficulties, I consider myself lucky. If I were like most employees in the United States workforce, seven days is all I would have -- I’d have to be right back to work the following week. If my company were like most in the country, I’d be burdened by two kinds of guilt: The guilt of having left work for seven days to take care of my family and the guilt of having to go back to work and leave my family. Call it the paternal leave guilt sandwich.
Related: The Basics of Employee Benefits
Thankfully, I’m not in this situation. I work at a company that values its employees and gives real, meaningful benefits. Let me say that differently: My company gives us benefits, not perks. There’s an important difference. Benefits are things like health insurance, paternity leave, and paid sick leave.
These days, you’ll hear more about perks than you will about benefits. Things like ping-pong tables, fridges stacked full of Red Bull and Perrier, video games, and other vanity items. What the employer is signaling to you with these items is clear: We’re cool! We’re hip! Join us, and you too can play ping-pong all the time! It’s an attractive signal, especially to young employees.
It’s also a siren song. Why? These benefits have diminishing returns. You simply don’t value a foosball table as much the 10th time you’ve played as the first time. More than that, you start to realize that many of the perks that attract employees don’t actually help -- and may cause more harm than good.
I worked in all different types of employment situations: agencies, tech shops, accelerators, startups and more. In most of those cases, the idea of paternity leave is fanciful. Mothers barely receive paid leave; fathers were laughed out of the room for even asking about it. Paternity leave shouldn’t kill your career.
Standard protocol in most companies is 14 days paid leave for mothers and nothing for dads.
Why is that? Aren’t fathers just as important to raising children as mothers? Should it really be career suicide to take time off to raise your children? Let’s be honest: In today’s environment, it feels like taking any time off at all is a sign of weakness. Our role models portray themselves as workaholics. Consider Michael Bloomberg’s advice to young people: “Arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk.” Implied in his comment is more advice: Don’t take vacations; don’t recharge; put in the non-stop hours and “succeed.” As tech blogger and editor Brad McCarty observed of his own breakneck work life, he was trying to “prove to my bosses that I'm the person they want to keep around, because I'm going to work harder and be more loyal to the company.” In this kind of climate, a father’s role in raising a newborn is optional, and the mother returns to work as soon as possible. Ignored is the fact that having both parents present is crucial to the success of the baby’s development.
Is it any wonder, then, that the “benefits” at so many companies aren’t benefits at all, but ploys to get you to work longer? Dry cleaning and laundry services available on-site? Great -- now you can put in a few more hours a week, because your clothes will be cleaned for you. Free pizza for the long hours you put in on that important project on Friday? Fantastic -- no lunch break, meaning more work we can extract from you. These so-called perks, in other words, tend to be Trojan Horses. While you’re chewing away on pizza and having your laundry delivered to your office, the company and its leaders are smiling because you are still in your office.
Benefits should help you live both a sustainable and a productive life. They should not simply be a way of getting you to stay in the office just a few more hours.
Mercifully, some of these habits are beginning to change, and they are changing for a simple reason: The war for talent. While competing to hire and retain the best talent, fast-growing and progressive companies -- household names such as Netflix, Google and Facebook -- have caught up to the needs of a modern family.
Speaking from personal experience, one of the primary benefits an employee cares about is the vacation and leave policy. At Tuft & Needle, both mothers and fathers are given the option of truly substantial paid leave -- months, not weeks -- after their child is born. This complements the company’s broader, extremely flexible vacation policy that allows them to bring their best, most balanced and focused selves to work. That policy means more than just a nice nod to vacations. Vacation policies often have an “unlimited” label, yet employees rarely utilize the benefit because they feel pressure to take less time off. This “pressure” may be a real symptom of the atmosphere or a self-imposed burden based on imagined perceptions by their coworkers. Tuft & Needle is trying to solve this by strongly encouraging its employees -- through words and, more importantly, through actions -- to take at least 25 days off per year.
If you do see a lot of fancy perks, ask yourself a simple question: Are those video game rooms, complimentary massages, or free dry cleanings really benefiting you -- or are they making it so you’ll never leave the office?
You might be giving in to perks that don’t benefit you at all.