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13 min read

Advice for employers and employees on supporting parents returning to work

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Parenthood is a joyful, wonderful, magical time. It’s also the absolute worst. Just when you think you’ve got this, your kid hits a new phase of development, or gets sick, or breaks two bones in two separate incidents two days apart leaving you dreading a call from social services (that might just be me), and you feel like a scared new parent all over again. Moving from parenting on leave to going back to work is one of those moments, and while nothing can really prepare you, I’m going to try my best.

Hi, I’m Katie Walton, a Senior Paid Media Strategist here at Impression, and I’m a working mum. I’ve got two fantastic kids — and I’ve also been through some things. When my eldest was born, I was the first employee at my then employer to ever be pregnant, go on maternity leave, and so, to come back from maternity leave. 

It was a lot. 

There are things that I wish my employer had known — and more importantly, that I had known — about what returning to work as a kind of new person would mean for me, what it would feel like.

I’m not a mental health expert, nor am I a legal advisor or HR professional, I’m reflecting on my lived experience as a working parent in the hopes that it will help others to do better and feel better at work.

I’d like to take a moment to recognise that while I’m a mother who gave birth to my children, there’s no one size fits all to parenting, to what families can or should look like. That means some of what I’m saying may not apply to you, and if you’d prefer to not read this piece as a result, that’s fine. And if you’re returning to work after your partner or your surrogate has given birth, or after adoption leave, some of the physical impacts of child-rearing on the body won’t be top of mind for you. While they may help you to understand the birth mother of your child, feel free to skip ahead to the other issues that I’ve raised, which can impact all genders.

If you’re an employer or line manager of parents, know that there will be advice in here for you too.

So what does everyone, regardless of their gender, need to know?

Babies Get Sick. A Lot.

Sounds obvious, right? But I’m not sure that anything can totally prepare you for just how many coughs, colds, stomach bugs, rashes and other illnesses your kid will pick up when they first start childcare. Even if you have older children. Even if you’ve been going to baby groups and your child has been licking other babies’ faces and shoving all the toys in their mouth. You’re still likely to find that those first three months are going to be full of snotty noses and – sadly at the moment – covid tests.

Now if you’re lucky enough to be balancing childcare with a partner while you both work part time, you have a nanny or babysitter coming to your home, or you have family caring for your child instead of sending them to an external provider, this maybe isn’t going to hit you so hard. For the rest of you, plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

What Can You Do? – For Employees

In the UK, most childcare settings will offer settling in sessions, time when your child can get used to their new caregivers before you have to leave them there for work. Use them all. Take that time to have a massage or read a book or enjoy an entire hot beverage while it’s still hot.

This is an important chance for your child to bond with their new caregivers, to help their

immune system develop, and for you to get some time to get used to not being with your baby. If you aren’t offered any, ask for them.

If possible, stagger your return to work. Whether you’ll be working full time or part time, if you can afford to build up to working your full hours, even if this means starting to transition from parental leave sooner than you hoped, this can help smooth this transition period.

I hope that you’ll be luckier than I was, and won’t find that the slightest sniffle sends your kid’s temperature skyrocketing, but know that there will be times when they catch something. Sit down with your partner and figure out how you’ll approach this. This past year has taught us that in heterosexual couples, the burden of childcare often falls upon the mother’s shoulders. This happens when we don’t negotiate how to handle these situations. No one partner’s job matters more than the other — even if they earn more — figure out ways that you can share responsibilities when you both have to work.

What Can You Do? – For Employers

As an employer, what can you do? Be flexible! Allow for remote working at short notice and working outside of normal hours to juggle childcare. 

Understand that however kindly meant, suggesting to someone with added financial burdens after a period of reduced earning, unpaid leave isn’t likely to be palatable, and using holiday leave to tend for sick children may mean parents who never get any downtime. If your company can afford it, consider a policy to allow parents a set number of paid days per year on top of their holiday allowances to ensure that parents can look after their kids and themselves.

The other key is to communicate with your team. Let parents know that they can stagger their return to work to ease back into their role. 

And ideally, don’t expect any returning parent to do a full workload from day one. I know that you’re paying them to do a job, but if they’ve had any significant period of time off, they’ll need time to adjust.

Babies Gotta Eat

Shocking, right? But it’s not something that you might expect to affect you at work. But, if you’re breastfeeding and need to express milk, you need a private, lockable space to pump where you will not be disturbed. And it can be really awkward to have to ask for one.

What Can You Do? – For Employees

If you haven’t already been given information about a private space, lockable space with a system to ensure that you are not disturbed, ask for it. You can request this in an email if you prefer not to ask in person.

What Can You Do? – For Employers

Employers, this is where you can shine. Give employees a space to pump in private and make it known to them where it is and how they can ensure that they won’t be disturbed before they return to work. E.g. is there a do not disturb sign that they can put on the door knob? It doesn’t have to be high tech, it just has to work.

(And no, the bathroom will not do. You wouldn’t ask your team to eat their lunch in a bathroom, don’t ask them to prepare their child’s lunch in a bathroom either.)

When you’re planning for any office changes, consider installing these accommodations from day one so that future breastfeeding parents aren’t left asking for them. Include information about this in office tours to all genders to normalise their use and mean that in future, employees may not even need reminding that they are available before their return from leave.

You’re Going To Be Tired

I know, what a shocker. But while thrice nightly wake ups may feel manageable(ish) when your day consists of baby groups, housework, and tummy time, it’s very different when you’re asked to sit at your desk and deliver for a full day.

What Can You Do? – For Employees

Sadly there’s no magic solution to this problem, you just have to slow down. Try to prioritise your own sleep for this exhausting season – even if that means an earlier bedtime. Talk to your line manager about how they can be flexible to help you – here at Impression we have the freedom to work remotely and choose our start time so long as we’re working for our core hours of 10am – 4pm.

Use as much of your parental leave as you are able to – the older they are, the less they need to wake up at night. And if you’re averaging less than 6 hours sleep per night, speak to your doctor. Whether your kid sees night time as playtime, struggles to stay asleep or whether you’re being kept awake by anxiety, they may be able to help you.

What Can You Do? – For Employers

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: don’t expect any returning parent to do a full workload from day one. Parenting is tiring, feeling sleep deprived can be soul destroying, ideally give your employees time to get used to working while weary. 

And keep checking in on them – it’s normal to be tired if you’re awake for half the night. But constant tiredness can be a symptom of depression. Don’t expect yourself to be their doctor or confidant, but keep an eye on whether tiredness is also accompanied by other symptoms like negative self-talk, inability to problem-solve or make decisions, or if you see the impact on their work. 

If you do suspect that a team member is struggling with their mental health, know what support you can give – ideally signposting towards your company’s mental health resources and listening – but be sure to set clear boundaries for your own mental health. 

It’s OK To Not Be OK

I’ve started touching on how the shift back to working life can impact mental health, because it’s important to me to reflect that this is a period of enormous change for everyone. As a parent there’s a huge transition for you to make, your child is constantly changing, and as employers you’re relearning what works for your team. 

As exciting as returning to work might be, it might bring feelings of anxiety, a loss of confidence, and an experience of imposter syndrome. Perhaps you’ve moved to working part time and you’re feeling isolated and left out of key conversations and opportunities to socialise. You might already be coping with diagnosed postnatal mental health problems and you’re not sure how you’ll cope with a change in your status. You might have a condition that predates parenthood and you’re still struggling to navigate your new role and how to manage your condition.

These feelings are all totally normal and totally OK and there really isn’t one size fits all approach to how to manage this.

What Can You Do? – For Employees

Speak up about what you’re going through. In the UK, you’re not obliged to disclose any mental health diagnosis that you have, but if you do choose to, you’re protected against discrimination by the Equality Act 2010. 

This is a personal choice for you to make – but you can speak to trusted colleagues, mental health first aiders, friends, family, doctors, and local support groups. You do not have to suffer alone or in silence, and it is in everyone’s best interest if you get support. There are many routes to coping with your problems, and the best ones always start with asking for help.

Even if you feel uncomfortable telling your line manager the full extent of your issues, you can touch on your concerns to get extra support to do your job to your best ability. If you’re struggling with a loss of confidence, are finding it difficult to keep on top of work, or just don’t get invited to meetings that you need to attend, consider speaking up about these specific issues. Some of these will have easier solutions than others, but if your line manager is unaware of your experiences, they cannot seek out training, support and accommodations to help you.

What Can You Do? – For Employers

Communicate with your team!

This is so important. Have regular one to ones and check ins and specifically ask people how they’re feeling, and if they have concerns about their mental health. People might not open up to you, that’s OK, that’s their choice, but you can be sure to look out for signs that they are struggling and ask open questions to help identify any issues.

That’s the easy part. The harder part is to make mental health a priority in your company – for everyone. Train mental health first aiders and be sure that everyone in the company knows who they are and that they’re available to talk. Use employee assistance programs that give employees routes to free counselling and other mental health support without needing to speak to their line managers.

Assume that any returning employee who has had a significant period of leave will need training of some kind. Digital marketing moves quickly and whether they will need formal training sessions or just time to read up on the latest changes, be sure to give them that space. Make sure that you know and understand that they’re going through an adjustment period and that this may be hard for them. Cultivate the expectation that learning is always necessary and that they will need time to find their feet in their new roles as working parents. I’d also recommend looking at confidence or resilience training for those returning to work to support their mental health.

I’ve already recommended that you don’t fill a returning employee’s time with client work for the practical reason of unexpected childcare needs. This will also give them the space to breathe and adjust and support positive mental health.

On a really obvious, practical note, make sure that they’re able to attend team meetings and that team members are including them in relevant comms. If weekly meetings always used to happen on a Monday and you’ve signed off on a team member not working Mondays, change the meeting day. It shows respect for all of your team and means that everyone can do their job effectively.

And finally, if you can, plan lunchtime socials from time to time. You don’t need to give up on post-work activities because someone may need to rush home to their child, but if you also include team lunches, you ensure that the parents in your team feel included and get the chance to bond with their colleagues.

Final Thoughts

The biggest thing I want both employees going back to work and employers with returning staff to remember is to keep talking and be kind. That might sound cheesy, but you’re both adapting to huge changes, the best way through that is to accept that you might not always get it right but if you’re learning from your mistakes and working together, you’ll get through this.

This blog is part of our representation in tech series. If you’d like to contribute, please submit your idea here.