From education to employment

How can businesses support new parents as they return to work?

Returning to work after any extended period of absence can take its toll on an employee. On a personal level, navigating the shift and return to work can be overwhelming. This can be exacerbated by the inevitable organisational changes which have occurred during the absence period, as employees return to an environment which can look quite different to the one they left.

For employees returning to work after parental leave, these feelings of stress and discomfort can be intensified. Not only are these individuals resuming the career responsibilities that they left behind, but they are also taking on the new role of being a parent. Leaders have a responsibility to support their workforce through this transition with a learning and development strategy tailored to their specific needs. This approach can contribute to improving new parents’ overall wellbeing, as well as bring benefits like increased retention and productivity to the business.

The return to work can be a challenging transition

Becoming a parent is an exciting milestone in the lives of many employees, but it can also be a stressful experience. Almost three quarters (70%) of new mothers experience mental health difficulties during or following their pregnancy. These challenges can be heightened on the return to work, as parents struggle with managing time and priorities between work and a caregiving role.

Maternity Returners’ is the term coined to describe those women who struggle to regenerate their former career after taking a significant break. This group, often engaged in a dual role at home and at work, risk experiencing burnout and performance issues if not adequately supported by their employer. At present, this is all too often the case, as new mothers often cite a lack of psychological safety and a lack of support from their organisation, and the same can go for new fathers.

The outcomes for this group can be disappointing if support is not available, ranging from reduced levels of responsibility at work or even leaving their role entirely. According to the Careers After Babies report, 85% of women leave the full-time workforce within three years of having their first child, and 19% leave work completely, becoming economically inactive. These staggering figures demonstrate significant lost potential, making the business case for appropriate parental transition support clear.

Providing comprehensive support to new parents as an employer

Since many new parents report receiving a lack of support during the return to work process, employers can differentiate themselves by designing comprehensive post-parental leave strategies.

Many such strategies are rather similar to those implemented to encourage other demographics into work. For example, in the recent Spring 2023 Budget, the UK government introduced “returnerships”, which provide support for older workers who are returning to work or seeking a career change. Organisations can learn from this government scheme, as it highlights the value of upskilling and reskilling for those who have taken a leave of absence from the workforce. Employees may benefit from similar initiatives following parental leave, to ensure that they are up-to-speed with current business developments and needs.

Such learning and development initiatives should always form part of a broader career development plan. Organisations must not put new parents’ career progression on hold when they return to work, but rather re-launch the conversation once an individual has had time to settle back into their role. Career development conversations can also include checking in on an employee’s wellbeing, and ensuring that they have access to all the tools they need during the parental transition. Each of these approaches must always be implemented with the individual in mind, so as to respond to the unique needs of each employee.

Offering a personalised professional development programme for new parents

As part of the career development plans for those returning from parental leave, organisations can consider a wide range of support mechanisms. Regular line manager check ins, mentoring and digital learning all have a role to play in encouraging the continued career progression of new parents. To complement these tools, organisations can also consider implementing digital coaching.

During the coaching relationship, an employee will have regular sessions with their coach to discuss any topics relevant to their career progression. This approach ensures that employees receive personalised support, at a time and place that suits them.

Digital coaching is particularly beneficial for those returning to work after parental leave, as it provides both practical and psychological support that can ease the transition. Additionally, given that digital coaching is highly personalised, new parents will be able to focus on the challenges that they are personally experiencing, rather than taking a blanket approach. As such, no resources are wasted and engagement remains high.

When returning to work as a new parent, employees appreciate tailored support from their employer. This does not mean reinventing existing employee wellbeing and development programmes, but rather adapting them to suit the needs of those experiencing this exciting milestone. When the workforce has access to this kind of employee assistance, the shift into being a working parent becomes much smoother, more productive, and happier.

By Rosie Evans-Krimme, Head of Behavioural Science EMEA, CoachHub

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