Supporting Employees through Parental Leave
If you, or anyone close to you, has ever taken an extended period of parental leave then you will know how much your life and sense of identity is turned upside down.
It is one of the biggest changes a person can go through in life. For many, it generates wonderful emotions such as happiness, joy, and fulfillment, but it can also generate negative feelings such as fear, uncertainty, and stress – often unexpectedly. A lot of these are the natural result of massive changes at home, but also a lot can stem from the fear surrounding a person’s job and career after the leave. Many individuals ask themselves will my job really be waiting for me when I return? What if I forget how to do my job? Or what if I’m not as good when I return? There are many small and simple things organisations can do to support colleagues and give them the best opportunity to thrive upon their return.
A recent survey found that 90% of people felt their career progression was hindered after taking parental leave, and that organisations may retain around 50% more workers if they improve the support offered to those returning.
In this article, we explore some practical suggestions for how you can really support those taking parental leave.
Establish a clear communication plan
One of the biggest things to bear in mind is that there is no one-size-fits-all for how to communicate with colleagues on parental leave. People are different and have different preferences for how they want to be communicated with which can make this part challenging to get right.
It’s important that this is openly discussed before the leave starts to establish how communication will work going forward. Some colleagues might not want to be contacted from anyone at work unless for business-critical updates, whereas others may like to have monthly or quarterly catchups with their manager and/or team.
There are other layers of communication to consider and discuss such as digital updates (such as inclusion in app, text messaging or email updates). Offering colleagues, the chance to be updated to their personal email address is a great way to keep them updated whilst allowing them to stay detached from the day to day.
The key is to really understand their needs and accommodating them in the best way possible.
Silence is one of the biggest things that makes people want to leave. A lack of contact creates uncertainty and colleagues often fill those gaps with other emotions such as not being valued or feeling rejected. Small check ins can really help a colleague to feel appreciated and connected to their role.
Communication can be especially pertinent when dealing with the increasingly common from home and hybrid workers. Trying to make a colleague feel re-attached to the business whilst remaining physically detached from it and their colleagues is challenging. It is crucial that there is a clear and consistent structure in place for keeping teams connected.
The 'ramp up' and 'ramp down' approach
A powerful tool to allow colleagues a gradual phase out and back into the business is to implement a ramp down and a ramp up approach. These periods are the 4 weeks prior to the colleague leaving and the 4 weeks immediately following their return and aims to protect employees from getting involved in overly complicated tasks or mentally taxing situations as well as reducing the number of meetings or projects with tight deadlines.
Ramp up periods may be especially helpful for men who are sometimes not given as much consideration when managing parental leave. Returning from paternity leave whilst also providing support at home in the peak of sleepless nights and round the clock feeds and nappies can be a very challenging time both mentally and physically. By acknowledging this period and temporarily adjusting certain responsibilities it can really support colleagues through a challenging time.
Another point for discussion during this period is utilising annual leave to allow a colleague to temporarily work a shorter week to support them through the transition in or out of work.
Support with building confidence when returning from parental leave
Becoming a parent is a huge shift in identity, and having an extended period away from work can leave people struggling to remember their work-self, their strengths and overall worth. Spend time with colleagues when they return to remind them who they are and why they are an asset to your team. This can be beneficial to help rebuild their confidence and increase their engagement upon return. Consider offering 360 feedback for colleagues around their parental leave period to help improve their confidence on return, and to give them some key areas of focus upon as they move forward in their career.
Emotional intelligence is key for managers with colleagues on parental leave, ensure your managers are given the right support to show empathy and listen to their staff. Really understanding people’s feelings and needs will help to strengthen the employment relationship by supporting a colleague when they are potentially not at their emotionally strongest point.
Offer flexible working - that is truly flexible!
Returning to work with a young child is a balancing act and requires a lot of thought and planning from parents to fulfil both roles well. Every family setup is different, and every individual will have varying needs. Flexible working is so important for most working parents, and that goes beyond just agreeing a new work pattern.
To really support and engage working parents the flexibility needs to be present to allow changes and adjustment to accommodate the needs of a young family. Removing the anxiety for Mums or Dads is key. When their child gets the third round of nursery bugs that month parents first thoughts then turn to work and not their child as should really be the case. “How will work take this” is a stress employers can manage for their employees. By allowing colleagues to change working arrangements to suit the needs of their family it will create a colleague committed to their organisation who is in turn more willing to give back and go that extra mile to fulfil their role well.
Giving colleagues control and autonomy of their hours and measuring them on output rather than input can really improve employee engagement boost morale and productivity, as well as really support colleagues to work at their best.
Ensure your organisation has zero tolerance for discrimination, we need to remove the stigma that employees have been away from the workplace on an extended holiday or have had a relaxing period at home. Take steps to adopt a companywide culture of support and understanding of the pressure that new parents are facing.
If you’re now wondering whether you’re doing enough to support your colleagues returning from parental leave - make sure you’re prioritising the following:
A personal welcome back from the line manager
A handover and up-date plan from colleagues
A summary of key changes and planned introductions to new team members
Ensuring all IT access and re-set up is completed prior to the employees.
Breastfeeding arrangements and risk assessments (if required)
Training requirements and the renewal of any compulsory training