Returning to work after having a child: How to welcome employees back

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Parents coming towards the end of their parental leave after the birth, or adoption, of a child can often be at a crossroads in terms of whether they want to return to work, and in what capacity.

Research conducted by That Works For Me, an organisation with a view of keeping women in the workplace, found some interesting statistics. 848 working mothers from across the UK were surveyed about their experiences and what happened to their careers after they had children. The results were:

  • 98% wanted to go back to work after they had children;
  • 52% want to work four days or more;
  • 24% go back to full-time work after having children;
  • 79% of the above 24% left their roles due to not being able to return to a full-time role alongside having a baby; and
  • 85% leave the full-time workforce within three years of having children.

While it is currently predominantly women who take a longer period of parental leave after having a child, men in same sex relationships or solo male parents who have a child are also entitled to the same amount of time off as the person giving birth (under the banner of adoption leave), while some parents choose to share parental leave between them.

It can be tough to return to work after having a child or children. The law goes some way to protecting returning parents, but a lot of issues and later problems could be solved via a robust and effective return to work process.

We recently held a round table discussion about this topic and we uncovered a lot of best practice, suggested approaches and positive steps an employer can take to ensure an easier transition back to work for returning parents.

Here are 10 ideas we came up with – please do let us know if you can suggest any more.

  1. A lot of this starts before the employee goes off on parental leave. Make sure that they are asked about what kind of contact they want to have with work while they are off. They may want to hear about, for example, socials, client or charitable events, training, etc. It’s also useful to notify them of any new starters in their team or the wider business which they work in, inform them of any new positions in the business which they may want to be considered for, any strategic plans as well as other staffing changes that may be relevant to them.
  2. When an employee is returning from parental leave, treat them as a new starter. Don’t expect them to go round and introduce themselves to new faces in the office. On that front, it’s a good idea to tell staff a few days before they are due to return so that they are aware and to ask them to go over and say hello. It’s also a good idea for someone to show the returning parent around the office so that they can re-connect with old colleagues and meet new ones. Also add to that list, refresher training, mini-inductions (on IT systems etc.) and any hard or soft skills training or updates that they may need to do.
  3. Discuss a phased-return – whether that’s to start a little bit later and finish earlier for the first few weeks to do nursery drop off and pick up and/ or working mornings only one week or two to three days and building up. This might be a gentler way to reintegrate body and mind into work mode. As well as flexibility, the returning parent may have a poorly baby who needs to undergo operations, or they may need ongoing physical or mental support, both of which may include them needing time off to attend medical appointments and/ or procedures. Adaptations to their duties or physical environment may also be needed.
  4. Think about how you are going to re-integrate the employee with clients and colleagues. Ideally, their line manager would prepare a draft action plan and discuss this with the employee so that both are agreed on the approach. If it’s the case that some contacts or clients have developed a relationship with someone else, explain this to the returner and discuss and agree what remedial steps will be put in place. For example, this may include introducing them to new clients, contacts, etc. or assigning them to different projects or workstreams.
  5. Consider having a returner’s session – this can include those who return from long periods of absence for whatever reason. Encourage them to discuss their concerns and have some senior and other levels of colleague on the call who have returned and who can give some practical advice based on their personal experiences. It’s also a good idea to connect the returner with any groups or networks that you may have already (e.g. working parent groups). If such groups don’t exist and anyone wants to set one up, support that and use their enthusiasm and energy and help them harness it into doing good for the business and your people.
  6. If the employee is senior, it may be a good idea to ask if they want an executive coach to support them returning to their role and transitioning back into the workplace.
  7. If an executive coach – for whatever reason – isn’t appropriate, suggest linking them up with a mentor or buddy within the workplace for informal support. This could be someone who has gone through the transition back into the workplace or has other similar circumstances, for example someone who used to work full time and has gone down to part time. The buddy can then be on hand to talk about how they manage their workload and how to deal with some of the more practical challenges of moving to part time working.
  8. Another thing that some organisations provide are sleep clinics. Returning to work when your baby is still young, and potentially not sleeping through, will be challenging. Sleep is one of those under-rated but overly impactful areas that if neglected, affects performance, mood, behaviour and general wellbeing. Some employers also offer sleep clinics for new-borns if employees need help with this (adult and baby sleep patterns are very different so you need to speak to the right expert if this is something that you are looking to implement).
  9. Don’t underestimate the impact of an individual’s line manager. In a survey of 150 employees, Fertility Matters at Work found that 70% of employees who were going through fertility treatment said that their line manager had more of an influence on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor and equal to that of their partner. A lot of issues can therefore be triaged and managed at the line manager stage. Ask yourself the question: How confident are you as an employer in your line managers and their ability to have such conversations with employees? If you have concerns that they may not be equipped to handle such conversations, consider providing training for them. We’re not asking for managers to be experts in any area, but they do need to have enlightened empathy and be able to talk to their employees in order to get the best out of them for both the employee and the workplace.
  10. Check in and get feedback from your returners. It’s all well and good to have a programme in place and think “job done” but get the employee’s perspective and see how they found the experience. Could it be improved? Is there anything they would suggest changing or that didn’t particularly work for them? Have that open dialogue so that the experience for future returners is improved.

Returning parents have various reasons for returning to work – some may be actively looking for their next career move, some may want to be mentally stimulated and challenged or at this stage in their career they may be simply happy to do their job and nothing more in order to have the lifestyle they want with their family. Of course, this may change as they go through their working life.

The worst thing an employer can do is to make assumptions about a parent in terms of what they can do, what they want and what their ambitions are. Ask the question! You will get so much more from that person by being curious and asking the question.

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To discuss the issues raised in this article, please contact a member of our expert team.

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