I recently returned to work after having my first little one (a healthy baby girl!). Transitioning came with a host of emotions – excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, relief. I am still getting used to changes with my body, breast-feeding wins and struggles, and balancing life in our new normal. Yes, postpartum brought ups and downs, though I feel lucky I haven’t been impacted by postpartum depression as many women are. I was ready to get back into the swing as I actually missed my work quite a bit. I feel grateful for the leave time I had with my baby, but I was excited to be back with my team and take on new projects (not to mention time with other adults – I missed that!).
My transition back to work has been smoother than I expected. Having just been through the experience – and being in the business of creating positive employee experiences – I wanted to understand common failings of leave practices and how companies get it right.
From what I can gather based on my experience and relevant research, here are three of the most important factors in supporting parents’ transitions back to work . . .
Before I went on leave, I needed to clarify how much time was granted and determine my options for extending time if needed. For example, some organization’s policies allow employees to take additional unpaid leave time, while others allow employees to use PTO or sick days for extended leave. Regardless of your company’s approach, it should be crystal clear what employees can expect. Policies should also clearly state if leave time is compensated and at what percentage. Additionally, what does it look like to add a new family member to insurance? Having a baby means taking on a whole new world of financial commitments, so there should be absolute clarity to plan accordingly. Companies like Spotify, Etsy, Microsoft, and Twitter have some great policies to model.
It is also critical to set good expectations around work coverage during leave. It was important that clients and projects were well taken care of, but I felt guilty asking so much of my team while I was gone. Then I realized I have been here to support my colleagues when needed. So, I made a point to be overly appreciative and grateful for the amazing ways my team filled in during my leave. We had a plan for responding to emails, keeping momentum on projects, addressing unexpected needs, and putting some things on the back burner for when I returned. I also notified people outside my immediate team that I would be going on leave, so they weren’t surprised to see my out of office reply.
Solid Team Support
On employee engagement surveys we ask people what they value most about their work; the number one response is their team and coworkers. It really does come down to relationships, belonging, and meaningful personal interactions. The same is true for a positive experience before, during, and after parental leave.
Before my leave, a number of people, including my boss, mentors, and other working parents offered suggestions about the best ways to take care of clients while I was out. I am glad I reached out and asked for tips from people I respect. Now that I am back, I appreciate how my teammates regularly show they care by asking about me. They ask to see pictures and whether we’re rolling over or eating veggies yet. This new little human is a big part of my life now, so it means a lot when people ask how it’s going.
My team and supervisor have also been incredibly understanding and supportive with pumping, doctor appointments, and anything else that may come up. My team trusts me to manage my work and responsibilities. In a time when it isn’t easy to balance everything, it is important to have support. To other moms (and something I regularly tell myself): If you’re experiencing emotions you feel like you can’t handle on your own, find someone to talk with and seek support. For mamas and our babies, we need to talk more about postpartum emotions, including depression.
As Much Flexibility as Possible
I always appreciated the autonomy in my job, and now more than ever. Some jobs are more conducive to flexibility than others, but as much as possible, granting flexibility supports returning from parental leave.
Having the opportunity to work from home – even a few days a week – can make a big difference. Consistent with recommendations by SHRM, some companies are implementing a ‘phase-out and then back’ approach to maternity leave (Miller, 2018). Noodles & Company grants six weeks of parental leave, plus four weeks before and after working 80% of full-time, receiving full pay all the while. General Mills and Walmart, among other large companies, have recently revisited their leave policies to increase the amount of time off and support provided for mothers and their partners (Miller, 2018; Rau & Williams, 2017). Good leave policies are inclusive of all caregivers (not just primary caregivers), which helps retain employees. When companies improve their policies, they have seen post-leave attrition of women drop as much as 50% (Rau & Williams, 2017).
Flexibility is also helpful for nursing and pumping. Breast-feeding may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It is going okay. For many women, finding time, spaces, and support for breast-feeding causes intense anxiety. Federal law guarantees unpaid break time to express milk for one year and a private space other than a bathroom for breast-feeding or pumping (Nagele-Piazza, 2019). Regulations like this are a step in the right direction, but showing genuine understanding and support to those who express milk is very important.
There are a lot of new to-dos to fit in my day, sleep deprivation, new dynamics with my partner, childcare, trying to get back in a workout routine, and a baby. A baby! A little human who is beautiful and gross, tender and loud, fulfilling and exhausting. Never have I experienced so many wonderful and challenging things all at the same time.
Everyone’s experience as a parent is different, and I think that’s why it is so challenging. The more we can support people through their unique experiences of parenthood, the more rewarding their time at home and at work can be. I believe most people want to bring their best selves home, and their best selves to work. Workplaces need to do what they can to support that.
Miller, S. (2018, Sept 26). Phased parental leave enhances family benefits. Retried from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/phased-parental-leave.aspx
Nagele-Piazza, L. (2019, Sept 5). How to accommodate breast-feeding employees in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/Pages/How-to-Accommodate-Breast-Feeding-Employees-in-the-Workplace-Lactation.aspx
Rau, H. & Williams, J. C. (2017, Jul 28). A winning parental leave policy can be surprisingly simple. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/07/a-winning-parental-leave-policy-can-be-surprisingly-simple