Imagine this: You are a parent who is about to have a child. As you go on your maternity leave, your team and manager have reassured you that they will manage everything in the office; you just need to take care of yourself and the baby.
Six months have passed. Most of your days has passed being with your child and loved ones. It has been tiring and confusing, but full of new memories.
Now, you are returning to work with a mix of emotions. You are sad to leave your child; maybe even guilty. You are physically exhausted. You are unsure of fitting in with people and completing tasks like you used to. It could be overwhelming.
This is a glimpse of the life of a new parent – a mother who has been on parental leave and is transitioning back into work.
Re-entry into the workplace is challenging; physically and psychologically, and helping new parents settle in must be an organizational responsibility. This may include following some practices, setting up policies, and creating a supportive environment. Here are some action points to do this:
Celebrate their Return
Doing a small welcome-back celebration can help a person feel part of the team, despite being away for some time. Managers or HR members must lead this by example. You can have a group gesture, like giving a personalized card signed by the team or asking colleagues to check in through the day, or offering help to catch up on work. Small actions of kindness and warmth go a long way.
Offer Flexible Schedules
The COVID-19 lockdown forced workplaces to re-evaluate their working styles and come up with creative ways of working. The same is needed for new mothers - for the first few weeks or months of their return. You can condense the work week, offer work from home, or have a part-time schedule – giving employees the chance to create a calendar that allows them to be accountable for their responsibilities, while also taking care of their and their child’s health.
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Reorient and Evaluate Upon Return
Schedule a mini orientation to help the returning employee get up to speed on the work done in the last few months, changes that have taken place, and new additions to the team.
Having a manager-employee conversation to discuss goals, how the parent can best contribute to the organization, and what kind of work they would like to do, can help them and the team to know what to expect as they settle in.
Based on this, you can scaffold their workload. Whether an employee returns part-time or full-time, re-adjusting to work life and expectations is overwhelming. To ensure their mental and physical wellbeing and retention, start off small and gradually increase their responsibilities and tasks.
A returning parent is not just dealing with changes personally but is also working with those who had the advantage of retaining and improving their skills during their break. Thus, managers and peers, need to give employees settling down time and assess where they may need additional training or help.
Ease Access to Childcare
Depending on the type of workspace, your organization might be able to provide on-site daycare to employees or set up a collaboration with one. This can reduce additional stress for parents looking for reliable childcare centers. Providing supplementary funds for an initial period is another way to make childcare a feasible option for returning parents.
Make office spaces parent-friendly
Creating parent-friendly spaces is both a logistical and a sensitive aspect. Offices need to ensure employees have a private place to express milk. This is in fact required by federal law in some countries. Sensitivity needs to be built among all employees in understanding the need for this, as well as being respectful of mothers in language and behavior. Further, you can have mothers set up their workspace where it is physically less exerting (involving less walking and/ or comfortable seating).
Offer Paternity Leave
This is very important in showing extended support to mothers and respecting fathers' maternal nature. It also is necessary to build inclusion of all families – like those with single fathers, or gay parents. Indian central government employees get upto two weeks of paternity leave, and it is time organisations start creating these policies for their own employees, accommodating longer paid leave as far as possible.
Support Emotional and Mental Wellness
As described above, mothers returning to work go through a lot during the adjustment phase. Companies can aid in their journey by encouraging them to use wellbeing services provided by the company, or external ones. Partnering returning employees with mentors for professional or personal support can do wonders in helping them settle and improve overall wellbeing.
It is unfortunate that more women than men have to take a break in their careers due to reasons like childbirth, taking care of children or family needs, and the lack of expected career growth. While workplaces may offer maternity leave and other benefits, we do not look into or discuss the difficulties of re-entering the workplace as much. Companies need to understand the value of their female employees and systemic changes needed to support their professional growth.