Managers: Here’s how to support new parents on your team
In this guest piece, Founder and CEO of Mindful Return Lori Mihalich-Levin and Co-founder of Mindful Return UK Anya Smirnova, explain what to do if you’re a manager that finds out someone on their team is about to be a new parent.
Surprise! One of your team members just informed you that they are expecting a baby in a few months. They plan to be out on parental leave for a number of months, and they want to work with you to make their transition into and out of leave as smooth as possible. How do you react to this news?
This important – and very human – life event happens all the time, and how a line manager handles the situation can determine whether an employee will have a successful reintegration into work after leave. According to the 2021 Benefit Bump Mom Survey, 34% of new mums who decided to leave their employer indicated it was a result of poor support from their line manager.
In addition to being a time of great change for your colleague, this period of transition can also be stressful for you, as you navigate shifting work demands within your team and managing team member expectations.
At Mindful Return, we know that focusing on the four principles of mindset, logistics, leadership, and community can help new parents with the transition back to work after leave – and these same themes can support line managers as well.
Strategies for line managers
Here are specific strategies you can use as a line manager, in each of these four critical areas:
Mindset: Before digging into the practical and tactical issues surrounding your colleague’s parental leave, it’s important to spend some time reflecting on how you are thinking and feeling about the leave and return process. It’s important to remember that change can be hard for all of us, and it is normal to have feelings of both joy and frustration around the changes within your team.
The most helpful mindset you can adopt is one of checking all assumptions at the door. You may find yourself assuming that your new parent-colleague will take a certain amount of time off, that your own plate of work will now be impossible to manage, that your new parent-colleague won’t want certain projects upon their return, or that they will or won’t want to engage in any work travel…none of which may be true.
Also notice if you are making different assumptions about working fathers in comparison with working mothers. When you catch yourself making an assumption (which is something we all do as humans based on the experiences we’ve had in the past or based on societal biases), simply recognise the assumption. Then start a conversation with your colleagues and team, for example, to ask your direct report what their own preferences and thoughts actually are.
Logistics: In advance of the start of your colleague’s leave, it can be incredibly helpful to engage your colleague in putting in place a written leave transition plan. This plan can cover projects and timelines, possible candidates for work handoffs, and what your communication plan will be for the period of leave.
During the colleague’s leave, actively keep in contact using agreed communication methods and topics, and generally demonstrate interest while acknowledging that it is the person’s choice whether to respond to the contact. When your colleague’s leave ends, you’ll also want to think through a number of logistical issues that will help make the transition go more smoothly – both for you and for your colleague.
Remember to take a moment to celebrate your colleague’s return, and take time to re-connect about life before jumping straight into business. Support flexible working and a phased-in re-entry, if possible under your organisation’s policies, and help to manage your colleague’s workflow over the initial weeks and months after return. Finally, make sure your colleague is aware of any resources your organisation provides to support them through the transition. These supports may include re-entry schedules, return-to-work courses, 1-1 coaching, parent mentoring, and working parent affinity or employee resource groups.
Prepare the team for the colleague’s return. A common concern is that a new parent needs to leave on time at the end of the day for childcare reasons or has a new flexible working schedule. Another common concern is the redistribution of roles between the returner and the persons who were covering their role. So it helps to discuss the expectations and any adjustments that might need to be made within the team.
Leadership: Given well-documented workplace and societal biases against caregivers, your direct report who is expecting a child may feel nervous about their future career prospects, isolated, or perhaps less valuable in the workplace. As a line manager, you have an amazing opportunity through their leave and return process to change this narrative for the better. As a manager, you have the platform, for example, to broadcast widely the research by Amy Henderson that shows that parenthood actually helps individuals develop “career-critical skills” that are so needed in the modern workplace.
As a leader, you have a platform to model work-life balance. According to the CIPD UK Working Lives Survey 2021, over-work, stress and poor work-life balance are key factors that undermine attempts to improve job quality in the UK.
As a leader, you also have a platform to model equity. When you think about questions you are asking of expectant mums. For example, ask yourself: are you asking the same of expectant fathers? You can spend as much time planning for and normalising leave for the men in your office as for the women. For the adoptive parents as for the birth parents. For the same-sex parents as for opposite-sex parents. For parents of colour, as for white parents.
Community: We often learn best from those who have already been in our shoes. For this reason, our challenge to you is to connect with other line managers – both at your organisation and within your broader community – who have had the experience of having an employee go out on parental leave. Also ask your HR department what resources and information they can provide to support you. For example, the employer can provide an effective training for line managers in people management practices in general and around parental leave in particular. There’s no denying that your own obligations to make sure the work gets done are challenging, and you deserve support from your employer, too.
Finally, encourage your new parent employee to find supportive communities of other working parents. Perhaps the best thing you can do to ensure your direct report feels calm and confident about their leave and return is to encourage them not to go through it alone. Perhaps you can introduce them to a team member who also recently had a child, or ensure that they know how to gain access to the online groups and resources of any parent and caregiver groups that may exist within your organisation. Ongoing, and regular check-ins with you, as their line manager, can also help them to return from leave feeling supported and connected.
Given that the cost of losing an employee can be up to twice their annual salary, the effort you put into helping retain your new parent colleague through a parental leave transition period will have a truly positive impact – both on the organisation and on your colleague.