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By Tom Connor
| December 17, 2019
Brandy Bobolas, 45, has worried about her mother’s health since she was a young girl. A senior manager at Wellesley-based Sun Life, and an only child, Bobolas was 13 years old when her mother suffered an aneurysm, followed by years of seizures.
Recently, as her mother’s condition has deteriorated, the demands on Bobolas have increased. “The only person she has is me,” she says, “and I’m going to be able to be the only person who will be by her side in the last of her days.”
Bobolas is among millions of Americans caught between obligations at work, at home, and caring for aging parents. And although Sun Life’s flexible work-life balance, including the ability to work from home at her discretion, has eased the burden on Bobolas, like other caregivers, she knew at some point she would benefit greatly from time off for around-the-clock caregiving without loss of pay.
That’s why Bobolas was so relieved when, two months ago, Sun Life rolled out a new paid family and medical leave program: up to 16 weeks of fully paid family leave for all new parents, caregivers, and others. (Birth parents get an additional fully paid 8 weeks for recovery from childbirth, and employees taking care of their own health conditions have 26 weeks and more, if needed, for long-term disability.)
Sun Life’s new program also offers a unique “chosen family” option, which allows employees to take time to care for someone close to them who may not be related by blood or marriage.
“My immediate feeling was gratitude, to the point where I just wanted to scream how amazing this is because it will make such a huge difference for so many caregivers,” Bobolas says. “It takes a load off my life and my soul.”
The future of family leave
Unfortunately, adoption of paid leave policies has been relatively slow in the U.S. While a proposed paid-leave FAMILY Act—which would guarantee employees receive a portion of their pay when they need time away from their jobs for family or medical reasons—is being debated in Washington, U.S. companies have been stepping up on their own to provide generous paid-leave packages to employees. Sun Life, for example, has been a supportive advocate for paid leave at both the state and federal levels, as well as offering a private plan option to employers who want to offer more than the law requires.
“Broadly speaking, what we’ve seen is that in the absence of federal policy, employers are filling the need for this critical benefit,” says Annie Sartor, director of advocacy and campaign director at PL+US, a paid leave advocacy organization.
“People need paid family and medical leave: They need time after welcoming a child, they need time to care for seriously ill relatives and for their own serious illness,” Sartor says. “Employees are demanding and expecting it and, more and more, the best companies are providing it.”
According to a 2018 survey by PL+US, more companies reported offering caregiver leave than in previous years, while others improved their existing offerings. General Mills Inc., for example, increased the amount of paid time off for new moms and added a paid time off benefit for new dads. IBM, Microsoft, and Deloitte are among other companies that offer above average paid leave packages.
In 2019, through its own research, Sun Life discovered that less than half (45%) of the people who took leave to bond with a new child were fully paid while on leave. The survey also showed that of those who took some kind of paid leave, more than half (56%) felt they could better focus on their job after returning to work, without the guilt or distraction of their situation at home.
Beginning in January of 2021, Massachusetts will join a handful of states that mandate paid family and medical leave for all employees. But the Massachusetts law, while generous, includes some limitations like caps on the salary level of those receiving the benefits. Private insurance programs can offer higher benefits and typically provide income replacement for longer periods of time.
Leadership at Sun Life welcomed the Massachusetts legislation but decided to take it a step further and examine what more they could offer their employees — not just those in Massachusetts, but in every state, whether mandated or not. Through a multidisciplinary team of legal, communication, product management, and HR experts, Sun Life developed a forward thinking paid family leave program that aligns with the company’s approach to fostering a supportive, flexible work environment.
“It made a lot of sense to us to offer even more generous benefits to all of our employees, and to do it sooner,” says Sun Life U.S. president Dan Fishbein. “It was the right thing to do and it would help us attract and retain the best people.”
The new paid family and medical leave program at Sun Life goes into effect January 1, 2020.
Time off to help employees grow
Sun Life also provides paid sabbatical leave, joining an increasing number of U.S. employers like Patagonia, Adobe Systems, and The Cheesecake Factory, which also offer paid sabbaticals of varying length and styles. These companies have found that such programs benefit productivity and profit while building company loyalty and retention among employees.
“Everybody periodically needs a chance to recharge,” Fishbein says. “A lot of people were leaving vacation time on the table at the end of the year. We wanted to change the culture by saying it’s okay to take a two-week vacation—we’re even experimenting with unplugging people from their emails.”
That focus on getting employees to recharge led to a sabbatical program at Sun Life that gives employees three to six weeks off, in a combination of company paid and accrued vacation time—to travel, study, take up a hobby, volunteer—every five years of employment. The only catch? When they return to work employees must post stories on the company’s internal social platform about their time off.
Peter J. Tata, an IT project manager with the company for over 20 years, has already taken the company up on this new offering. Last summer, he, his wife, their two daughters, and his mother-in-law went on a service trip to Camp Sunshine, a retreat in Maine for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Peter volunteered in the cafeteria while his family worked with the children.
“It was awesome,” Tata says. “You put everything into your day-to-day job and it’s rewarding, but you also look forward to recharging your batteries. The sabbatical was both a great opportunity to take the service trip and to recover from it, because it’s physically and emotionally draining.” He and his family plan to volunteer at Camp Sunshine again when their busy schedules allow.
Benefits that benefit everyone
While sabbaticals and paid leave for family and medical needs are beneficial to employees, they also serve the companies that offer them.
“Our employees are taking care of what they need to and are returning back to the workplace in a way that’s enthusiastic,” observes Tammi Wortham, vice president of human resources at Sun Life, who has engaged directly with employees on their sabbatical stories. “They’re essentially returning to the workplace as their full selves. They have a renewed energy and focus and are more productive.”
Now, Sun Life is using its experience in paid family and medical leave to help other companies administer similar programs, and the company continues to work with lawmakers at the state and federal levels to advise on policy as paid leave gathers legislative steam.
Currently, eight states plus the District of Columbia have passed a paid family and medical leave requirement, though each program is run differently. Sun Life’s discussions with legislators and advocacy groups also examine and advise on the role that employee benefit insurers like them can play in these programs—by administering paid leave, for example, or by offering short- and long-term disability benefits that are integrated with the new programs. The company already provides employers with leave management for several state and federal laws.
“Our motivation and the motivation of people who are in favor of legislation for these programs are exactly the same: We want Americans to have really good income protection in the event they can’t work,” Fishbein says. “That’s one of the reasons why we at Sun Life come to work every day.”