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We Have Less Maternity Leave Than Pakistan? 5 Things That Would Make Your Job Humane

Everyone's talking about work-life balance, but here are some concrete ways we might actually achieve it.

In the cult-classic feminist revenge comedy 9 to 5, three put-upon employees played by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin kidnap their sexist boss and institute changes in their office that are applauded by their colleagues: in-office childcare, workshare, flexibility. They sweep work-life balance into their workplace and increase productivity as a result, earning plaudits from the top brass.

The film has been getting late-night laughs on cable for years now, but Americans still haven't gotten very far in implementing the kinds of changes it advocates. Now, at least, we're talking about it. As this globally warmed summer stretches on, major think-pieces in the media about work-life balance in America--specifically, about the lack of the "life" part--have been showing up faster than you can say "I need a vacation." 

Working people are stung by the recession, juggling multiple jobs to pay medical bills or tuition, unable to take time off. And even elites have realized that their institutions and workplaces, caught in the current of not fettered-enough capitalism, force them to de-prioritize their families and their sanity. 

Some of what hampers progress stems from the American ethos, the Puritan work ethic that has seeped into our soil and made those who want to relax feel as though they are lazy. 

But in practical terms, the problem is policy-based. When it comes to protection of workers, we remain pitifully behind every other Western country. Here are five basic policy changes that would ensure Americans in all walks of life had more work-life balance.

1. Adopt Mandatory Paid Sick and Family Leave

The statistics are raw: we are the only developed country without mandatory paid maternity leave. With our paltry requirements for unpaid leave (waived for small businesses) we stagger along behind places like Pakistan, Mexico and South Africa, which have paid leave requirements. Many European countries have innovative programs that allow parents to split leave or even require fathers to take part of the leave.  ThinkProgress reports:

Out of 178 nations, the U.S. is one of three that does not offer paid maternity leave benefits, let alone paid leave for fathers, which more than 50 of these nations offer. In comparison, Canada and Norway offer generous benefits that can be shared between the father and mother, France offers about four months, and even Mexico and Pakistan are among the nations offering 12 weeks paid leave for mothers.

Because of our policies, women are essentially punished for having children. But it doesn't stop with having children. We have no real policies in places on a national level for allowing time off to care for an aging or ailing relative, no clear policies for what happens if we ourselves get sick. Some states and cities have begun to make progress on this issue, but only in the past few years.

The National Partnership for Women and Families has been pushing for a bill called t he Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1876, S. 984) which stands little chance in this Congress. Still, a bill like this would be a good start:

[It] would prevent 30 million Americans who don’t have paid sick days from being forced to choose between their family’s health and their financial security by establishing a national earned paid sick days standard.  The State Paid Leave Fund is a proposed grant program through the Department of Labor that would allow states to develop and implement family leave insurance programs that workers could access following the birth of a child or to care for ailing family members.

2. Mandatory Paid Vacation and Flexible Vacation Policies

This is perhaps the most obvious policy that needs to change. Perhaps you've already guessed, dear reader, where the US stands relative to the rest of the world. From the Atlantic, this July 4:

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