At a glance
- Many factors weigh into the decision to return to work, and there’s a lot to plan and think about when you do.
- People can develop valuable skills and perspective during parental leave, and bring this back into the organisation.
- Planning and honest and open communication are key to a successful return to work after extended leave.
Starting a family is an exciting time in life, but if you’ve taken parental leave during this period, returning to your career can seem daunting. Whether you’ve been away for a year or a decade, many factors can weigh into your decision to return, and shape your experience once you do.
“Before starting a family, I thought I was empathetic to the demands on working parents, but navigating the complexity of family life alongside my own career has given me greater appreciation for people in this position – because it’s not until you know, that you really know,” reflects Siobhan Ferreira, a Principal at Gerard Daniels. “Through this experience I’ve also learned that the more thought and planning that goes into returning to work, the smoother the transition will be.”
Here Siobhan explores how best to prepare for returning to work, and support the needs of working parents.
Planning your successful return
Be clear on what you need
Factoring your family situation into your new working arrangements can be challenging, even more so as a single parent; if your partner regularly works away; you have limited access to family support; or if there is misalignment between your own work-life goals and the expectations of your family and/or employer. However, managing your return is much easier when you know what you want and need, and everyone is on the same page.
“Open and honest communication is essential, but before you start this discussion consider whether you want to return to the same role, the same hours and working arrangements, or even the same employer,” says Siobhan. “Also be clear on the type of support that will help you settle you back in, like access to childcare, modified hours or working arrangements, or breastfeeding facilities.”
Address skills and confidence gaps
On returning to your career after an extended break you can easily feel overlooked for promotion and professional development – particularly if you lack confidence in your own skillset, or if your priorities and career ambitions are unclear.
“To prevent these issues from holding you back, keep up with professional development and stay across changes in your profession,” says Siobhan. “As an employer, it’s also important to discuss skills gaps and target professional development opportunities in these areas.”
Build your support network
It takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true of supporting working parents. “Think ahead to what needs to happen or change at home and at work, and who you have in your corner to help make this happen,” says Siobhan. “The cost and availability of childcare can also be an issue, with waiting lists for popular days sometimes up to several months long. So get your name down early and request as many days as you can – you can always scale back once your work commitment is clear.”
Returning to work can be emotionally complex, too. “When planning your return, you may feel isolated or disengaged, and be looking for ways to reconnect,” says Siobhan. “Maintaining some form of contact or connection during parental leave can minimise this experience, and ease your transition back to work.”
It’s important to remember that the need for connection during and when returning from leave is highly personal. “While some people may prefer to maintain regular contact, for others a quarterly scheduled call with their boss or simply being included on the invitation to staff events – whether or not they choose to attend – is enough,” she continues. “And there should be no pressure, because it’s up to each individual to communicate their preference.”
Measure performance and manage perceptions
While COVID has improved access to flexible working, we still need to move away from the ‘bums on seats’ mentality for measuring productivity and performance. “This issue is felt by many people that juggle families and careers,” says Siobhan.
To manage any bias or perception issues around your performance, be clear on what defines your success at work, and what your family non-negotiables are, then adhere unreservedly to both.
Enticing talent back to work
Employers must look beyond the transition back to work, and appreciate the value that comes with taking parental career breaks. “Time away can help to develop valuable and transferable skills and experience, and diverse perspectives which they bring back into the organisation,” says Siobhan.
Whether you offer flexible work arrangements for working parents or role model family-friendly behaviours from the top, more can always be done. Here are some good examples from industry.
Parental leave: Parental leave is improving, with three in five Australian employers now offering paid parental leave. There is also a growing trend to provide parental leave earlier, in some cases from day one, which is a compelling recruitment proposition for anyone looking to start or grow a family.
Career comeback programs: According to Siobhan, one leading global financial services provider offers an innovative career comeback program to parents returning from career breaks of longer than two years. This program coaches and guides returning employees through the transition back to work; connects them with a network of peers; and supports career acceleration.
On-site family support: In particularly tight labour markets, investment continues to pour into workplaces that provide employees with facilities like childcare, family GPs, cafes and other amenities, making the return to work much easier and more appealing for parents.
‘With parental leave representing a career break rather than a career endpoint, these transitions should be aided and embraced by organisations,” says Siobhan. “Employers can benefit from playing the long game and seeing the value and commitment that these staff bring.”