According to a recent survey by professional services firm AON, 63% of workers called for improved maternity, paternity and parental leave policies from their employer. Naturally, when you hear this the immediate impression is that they’re referring to increased paid parental leave. That’s a reasonable assumption to make but there are also other, more inexpensive ways to improve these policies and increase engagement, wellbeing and gender diversity.

When looking at some of the statistics around parental leave it’s easy to see why workers are calling for change. A survey of more than 1000 women run by MMB magazine (72% of whom worked at management level or above) found that less than 18% felt confident about returning to work. 37% of those who participated in the survey went further to say that they felt so isolated and unsupported they considered resignation.

There’s no longer any doubt that increased wellbeing, employee engagement and diversity lead to more profitable businesses and those who are working hard to support parents through creative wellbeing programmes are reaping the rewards.

So, how can businesses support those on parental leave and throughout their return?

Take away the stigma

Often those going on parental leave are seen to be, or feel that they are a burden; recruitment for their replacement can feel onerous and, with frequent media reports on the prevalence of redundancies made on the run-up to return, it can leave those approaching parental leave feeling threatened and uncertain. Encouraging a good working relationship with the individual covering while they’re away is a good place to start. Also, making sure that those approaching Parental leave feel valued and secure in their role, if indeed this is the case, and giving clear guidance on what to expect while they are away on leave will make a difference. Knowing there will be support available on their return will mean they enter parental leave with confidence.

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that colleagues of those on parental leave held unconscious bias towards those returning to work. We can only assume that this stems from the societal stigma but also the perceived burden on the business. Encouraging managers to view or at least be perceived to view the process positively, embracing flexible working and family friendly policies and highlighting role models of those who have made a difference to a business after returning to work will start to remove any stigma and maintain engagement on the run up to leave.

Get the communication right

Often, when speaking with employers and managers about how best to communicate with employees on parental leave they’re uncertain of what is legally permitted and prefer to err on the side of caution, taking the approach that less is more. For some prospective parents that could well be the right approach. But when speaking with parents about the challenges of returning to work it can be more difficult for those who have felt out of the loop and whose role or business has dramatically changed while they are away.

Giving employees the choice either to opt in or out of regular communication is invaluable. While employers often pause work email accounts, giving them access to the intranet to view vital business updates or encouraging managers to forward these on, if requested, will make a difference.

For a busy manager with a team member away on leave, it is easy to fall into the trap of out of sight, out of mind. It’s natural but not beneficial. By educating your manager population on the value of maintaining engagement while staff are on parental leave, and the possible impact of losing an experienced employee, helps to maintain awareness. Most businesses use checklists for managers on the run up to someone going on parental leave but they’re often just box-ticking. Taking this a step further to include options for communication and signposting to relevant wellbeing benefits (where available) will raise awareness within your manager population of the importance of employee wellbeing and mental health in this scenario.

Encouraging managers to set calendar reminders throughout the period of absence and asking those approaching leave if they’d like regular update calls with their manager will help. Setting an automatic email forward on any regular email updates is an easy way to keep in touch, with no thought and effort required.

Keep in touch days can also be a subject of uncertainty both for the employee and the employer. Some employees feel under pressure to use them, while employers can be wary of broaching the subject. Having clear communication on how they can work and their benefits and, giving employees the freedom to feel that they are not compelled to use them, will take away the uncertainty upfront.

Offering increased wellbeing support and coaching

Many employers have benefits in place that support the staff during periods of leave. So ensuring these are available throughout maternity/paternity leave, and that those on leave have easy access to them, is important.

Some employers are taking it a big step further by offering tailored support specific to those on maternity leave. These may include access to midwives, lactation consultants, nutritionists, therapists and sleep consultants. Such indirect touch-points with employees on leave make the journey through parenthood easier, by supporting good mental health and increasing engagement, when individuals are feeling disconnected from their employer.

Offering coaching on the approach to return, through the transition and on an on-going basis has been proven to have a major impact on the retention and career progression of those returning. A report by the ICF has proven that coaching can have a huge impact – 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, and over 70% show improved work performance, relationships with colleagues and better communication skills. Importantly from a business perspective, 86% of companies report that they either recouped or exceeded their investment on coaching (source: ICF 2009).

Longer parental leave is good for employee engagement, and some believe pays for itself in terms of job satisfaction and staff retention but can feel like a major shift for some businesses. However, a well-planned and supportive managerial approach to parental leave, combined with the provision of easily-accessible professional help for staff during this vulnerable time and as they go back to work, can make a step change towards a happier, healthier and more diverse work-force, without a big effect on the bottom line.

Parent Cloud is helping to transform businesses by creating a workforce of healthier, happier parents. Through us, employees gain online consultation access to specialists in fields such as antenatal/birth/postnatal coaching, breastfeeding, nutrition, infant sleep, therapy sessions and career coaching. The result: increased employee engagement, improved mental wellbeing and more gender-inclusivity.


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