Does Your “Return to Work After Parental Leave” Plan Work for Your Employees?

Many organizations don’t have a plan to transition workers back from parental leave. If they want to retain talent, they should.

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Does Your “Return to Work After Parental Leave” Plan Work for Your Employees?

When employees begin paternal leave, they’re sent off with congratulations and well-wishes. During their time off they may check in routinely, periodically or not at all. They’re busy adjusting to a first baby, a new addition to their family, or an older child placed in foster or adoptive care. Their hands are full with new responsibilities: parental leave gives them the welcome time needed to make adjustments.

When it’s time to return to work, business leaders are excited to have productive talent back in the fold. For many parents, the challenge of juggling a new baby or an older child with work responsibilities can be difficult. Organizations can help their staff members make the transition back to work with new or additional family responsibilities with a bit of understanding and planning.

Who is taking parental leave?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates about 56% of American workers have access to unpaid parental leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): about 23% of have access to paid parental leave. Studies show about 70% of women take some form of parental leave, compared to about 5% of men. On average, American workers take 10 weeks leave, either paid or unpaid: yet 25% of women return to work with 2 weeks of giving birth.

On average, American workers take 10 weeks leave, either paid or unpaid: yet 25% of women return to work with 2 weeks of giving birth.

How hard is it to return to work?

There are many factors that make retuning to work challenging for parents. Financial necessity may be a driving force, but that doesn’t mitigate all the issues. For some workers, there are too many obstacles to overcome.

Businesses often wait for the leave to end, anxious for the employee to return; however, some workers resign instead. Some try to make the transition but can’t juggle work and home responsibilities, ultimately quitting as well. In these circumstances business has lost more than a valuable employee — they lost the time they could have spent recruiting and training a replacement.

Understanding the obstacles workers face when returning after parental leave can help the transition. If you can ease the staff member back, supporting them as they get to a stable routine, the chances they’ll resign are reduced. You’ll have salvaged an established employee for your business and helped them find a way to balance work and home obligations. Here are some of the challenges they face and how you can help.

Childcare

One of the biggest challenges new parents face is arranging for childcare. This can be difficult for parents who have a new addition to the family, too. Childcare continues to be a pain point for workers across the country, particularly after pandemic closures forced some small facilities to shut down and never reopen. Finding adequate care for children is difficult but there are ways employers can help.

Encourage workers to plan for childcare expenses with Flexible Spending Account deposits — before their first child is born. These accounts allow workers to set aside pre-tax dollars they can use for daycare centers or private caregivers. Having this plan in place can ease the financial burden of returning to work with money already set aside to pay for the first weeks or months of care.

Another way employers can help with childcare is to research and suggest facilities near the company for parents to use. Most parents drop their children at daycare near their homes, but many are finding daycare closer to work is a strong option. They can often join their children for lunch or snack  time, and be close by if there’s an emergency or an issue. If there’s a facility in your area, you may be able to work with them for potential discounts for your employees, as well.

Scheduling

Another obstacle for parents may be scheduling. Jumping from 12 weeks (or more) of time off to a full-time routine can run the gamut from frustrating to impossible. If you can, plan with the employee in advance of the leave, or work with them toward the end of the leave, to transition back with a reasonable schedule.

If you can, plan with the employee in advance of the leave, or work with them toward the end of the leave, to transition back with a reasonable schedule.

Look at returning part-time initially, then building to a full-time routine. You can consider remote work as they transition, if feasible. It may take a bit longer to get them back to 9 to 5 with a part-time or remote plan, but consider the alternative. Letting them resign means recruiting, hiring, and retraining someone who will take as many months (or longer) to equal their level of knowledge and productivity. You’ve managed without them for several months — a few months longer to get them back to full time is worth the investment.

For parents with children in care centers, look for ways to adjust their schedules to ease drop-off and pickup. Ask employees if dropping off or picking up children earlier or later means a shorter time in line or less of a traffic hassle. If possible, adjust their clock-in and -out times accordingly.

Guilt

Never underestimate parental guilt. Returning to work after the birth or placement of a first child can be overwhelming. Even employees with several children may feel remorse over leaving their children with a relative or in daycare. Offer support in the form of understanding, a sympathetic ear, and resources.

Your healthcare or wellness plans should provide access to professionals your staff members can leverage if they’re feeling overwhelmed, either with guilt or the other stresses working parents face. Let employees know before, during, or after their leave that these resources are available and they’re encouraged to use them.

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Lactation

If you don’t have an area set aside for lactation, make sure to set one up. Lactation spaces are required in some states; others have requirements that allow for lactation break times during the workday. Whether it’s legislated in your area or not, a great way to support working mothers is to have a lactation plan for their return.

Set aside a small, private space they can use to express milk, and provide a small, private refrigerator for storage. You don’t want anyone “borrowing” from a shared refrigerator if there’s nothing else to lighten their coffee. If employees have a private office, they can use their own space. Create signage for their door that expressly states “Do Not Disturb.” Make sure to let workers know you’ll have a lactation space for their return, if you don’t have one available now.

Reestablish connections

Just as you plan orientation for new hires, consider a re-orientation plan for return-to-workers. During their time off, new equipment may have been installed, new software uploaded, new procedures put in place, or new faces added to the company or department. Plan on a meeting to introduce them to new staffers or to reconnect with peers (a lunch is even better). For anything new, plan on training sessions to get them up to speed.

If another employee has taken their share of the work during the absence, don’t plan on just dumping everything back on their desk. Have the 2 employees spend time initially to discuss what went smoothly over the leave, where they may need a heads up with customers or protocols, and how to transition the work back quickly and easily.

Set aside face-time

If you can, offer return-to-workers time to connect online either through an app on their phone or the company’s video conferencing. A few minutes to check in and see their sweet child’s face can help them get through the day knowing they’re safe and well.

Help with logistics

There are small ways you can help returning parents, as well. Many parents turn to delivery services for the basics: diapers, wipes, and formula. If you can allow deliveries at the office for these, you can ease worrying about porch pirates and even save parents a trip to the big box store.

Start a dialog

Talk with parents on staff and those planning a family or taking leave about other ways you can support them. Working parents are the backbone of American industry. Almost 75% of American women with children under 18 are in the workforce: over 93% of men. If you can help them juggle professional and personal responsibilities and obligations, you’ll see a stronger workforce and a more profitable company.

As you and your employee plan for parental leave, let them know you are anxious to help them make the transition back to work with support and services at their disposal. Knowing you’re there to help may be a critical step in easing them back to the fold.

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