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David Bird took Shared Parental Leave and then worked flexibly while his son was small. His employers at Octopus Renewables supported him at every turn
David Bird works in finance, closes deals, checks emails at all hours, and so on. But if that conjures up images of a certain stereotyped dad then prepare to think again.
He took six months of Shared Parental Leave before returning to work part time and he’s as comfortable talking about the mental load at home as he is the legal intricacies of the renewable energy market (his area of specialism).
He’s an investment director at Octopus Renewables. And dad to two boys – Tom, aged six and three-year-old Ollie.
When Tom arrived, David took his two weeks of statutory paternity leave then returned to work. Second time round he was determined to do things differently.
“I didn’t see as much of Tom as I wanted to or ought to have done, “ says David. “When we were going to have a second child my wife and I agreed we wanted to do things differently.
“Early on I raised it with Octopus that I wanted to take Shared Parental Leave (SPL). Their response was textbook. My manager barely flinched and said, ‘Brilliant, go for it.’ There was no sucking of teeth, no questioning what it might mean for my career.”
Key to making a success of his SPL was having a long lead in. David gave his employers plenty of notice of his intention and they were able to work out between them how it would be handled. The firm didn’t hire paternity cover for David, instead he was essentially replaced in a role he was keen to move on from anyway. He wasn’t sure what role he’d return to but that also meant he didn’t have to worry about how his job was being handled in his absence. “That ambiguity about my role was a positive for me,” says David.
And David didn’t just take a bit of leave. He took six months of SPL combined with an accrued month of holiday to give him seven months off. After a crossover month, in which both he and his wife were on leave and the family headed for a holiday in the US, David was on his own. Research shows that the more paternity leave a man takes the better, but if he has a chunk of time in sole charge of the children, he can really clock up confidence as a father and will stay involved for life.
Asked if SPL made him a better dad, David has no doubt. “Definitely. The difference was really noticeable between the first and second times round. With Tom there was never a period where daddy was the favourite. With Ollie there was a time where he would cry if I left the room. In some ways that was hard for my partner, but it did mean she could make a cup of tea in peace this time!
“It’s made me conscious of the mental load and made me more involved still.”
As his SPL drew to a close, David realised he wasn’t ready to go straight back to work full time. “I couldn’t get my head round what it would be like to go back to work full time. I said to Octopus that I was interested in flexible working. There were challenges, but we made it work.” David spent 18 months working a four day week with Fridays at home with his kids. The nature of his work, probably of any work, meant he’d have to occasionally take calls or look at emails. “There was contamination of my Fridays. And there was guilt – opposing guilts, feeling bad because I wasn’t giving the boys my attention or because I wasn’t giving work my attention. You just have to accept that.”
When Tom started school, Octopus flexed again. David returned to work full time. That might not sound like flexible working but if a business can change an employee’s work pattern as their caring responsibilities alter over time, that’s the very model of flexible working. And the company reaps the benefits from its workforce. “The fact that Octopus has been flexible and the fact that I’ve been able to find a balance has made me more aligned with the business, more engaged. And I’m generally happier.”
It’s made David a better ally too. “No-one tells you how hard it is coming back. I was astonished how long it took to feel I was back in the swing of things.” Consequently, when a mum in his team was struggling after a few weeks back from maternity leave, he could empathise and reassure her.
And when Octopus was looking at its parental policies, David was more inclined to speak up. Previously the policy was confusing to the point David knew of men who would rather abandon the idea of taking Shared Parental Leave than get to grips with understanding their entitlement. Now Octopus has a clear and generous policy: either parent can take six months of leave at full pay.
And David is yet another dad who took Shared Parental Leave and didn’t regret it. “There were two dads, including me, who were the first two in the company to take Shared Parental Leave. We both came back really positive about it. I know quite a few other guys who’ve gone on to take it.”
David’s story is packed full of lessons for dads and employers. He demonstrates the power of role models and of talking positively about fatherhood and leave. And his example shows that a period of solo care binds dads into caring and family life.
The response of David’s employers at Octopus Renewables appears textbook from the first time he asked for SPL. Being positive about parental leave, working with the employee to make arrangements work and flexing along with the employee’s needs reflect well on the firm and provide a template others can learn from.