Give the right support to parents re-entering workplace - Susannah Donaldson

My middle son recently celebrated his seventh birthday and I realised it was six years since my return from maternity leave with him. I remember the morning of my return to work vividly because, upon reminding my daughter why I was donning work attire rather than snuggling up with her in bed, she exclaimed: “But women don’t work, mummy!”

Parents returning to work – in the office or at home – face challenges
Parents returning to work – in the office or at home – face challenges

This was a light-bulb moment on many fronts and it certainly gave me a whole new personal driver for returning to work. Firstly, I realised I’d never really spoken with my then three-year-old daughter about my job, and now I make a conscious effort to do so with both her and my sons. Although a lot of it goes over their heads, it hopefully helps to demystify this important dimension of my life.

I also realised that the way I explained concepts such as “work” would create positive or negative associations for my children. It underscored the importance of speaking about work in positive terms, as something that I was actively choosing to do, rather than being apologetic about it.

Whilst my daughter’s comment was a misguided generalisation about the role of women in society, I was reminded that many parents (and other groups such as carers and disabled people) do not work, not through choice, but because their employers don’t create conditions which make it possible for them. Many friends have not returned to work after having children for that very reason. As an employment lawyer and diversity and inclusion specialist, it gave me a renewed sense of commitment to help businesses provide the same positive experiences for their own employees, which I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy.

Returning from work after family leave can be daunting. All the normal stresses of work are compounded with child-related logistics, pressure to catch up on new developments and rebuild your workload, a general loss of confidence, as well as feelings of guilt about leaving your child in the first place.

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For these reasons, businesses need to think beyond the family leave period and ensure support mechanisms are in place at the time they are needed most – the point at which parents re-enter the workforce. From a business perspective, re-entry to the workplace also coincides with the point at which employers are most at risk of losing often long-serving and valued employees to voluntary resignations, so taking steps such as these is not just the right thing to do from an employee relations perspective, it also makes business sense.

Steps which employers can take include implementing phased returns to ease the transition back to the workplace. Keeping In Touch days, for example, are not promoted or utilised as much as they should be.

Promoting a sense of inclusion and belonging is essential. Many parents returning from family leave feel like outsiders, so managers should schedule regular 1:1 check-ins and make a concerted effort to involve them in all business-related activities and events. Pairing employees with mentors and colleagues who have faced similar challenges can also be hugely encouraging.

It helps to have honest conversations about career progression and providing support in line with the employee’s personal aspirations. Employers often wrongly assume work or promotion opportunities will not be of interest because childcare rather than work is now the employee’s priority.

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Employers should acknowledge that it may take returners some time to ramp up their knowledge and workloads and set fair, realistic and achievable targets and objectives. Expecting too much too soon is demotivating and could lead to the employee losing confidence both in their own abilities and in the motivations of their employer.

Employer and employee should work in partnership to devise a working arrangement which enables the employee to thrive in both professional and private roles, whilst also fulfilling the business’s needs. Employers need to be open to a trial period and appreciate there may be an element of trial and error. For a flexible working arrangement to succeed, there needs to be an understanding from the outset that flexibility cuts both ways.

In the context of the current skills shortage, measures such as these will play an instrumental role in helping businesses retain diverse talent, particularly at more senior levels, and in addressing the motherhood penalty which remains one of the root causes of the gender pay gap in the UK.

Susannah Donaldson is Legal Director, Pinsent Masons

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