Returning to work after family leave can be a hard transition—for mothers and for fathers, too.
Sleepless nights. Tight schedules. Doctor visits.
All this coupled with working-parent guilt can make adjusting to life as a new parent difficult.
Some parents muscle through it, while others choose not to return to work after taking family leave. That was the case for my family.
My husband and I decided it was important for one of us to stay home with our baby. We decided that someone would be me. There were several factors that played into our decision. For starters, the baby and I weren't sleeping more than two hours at a time. We were concerned about our health (the baby's and mine); my commitment to breastfeeding and the lack of breastfeeding-friendly spaces in my office; and the high demands that came with a tech-startup environment.
I, like so many mothers, chose to stay home, saying goodbye to my peers and my job.
Losing an employee (especially a top performer) can be hard on a business. Finding a replacement can be challenging and expensive. Plus, really talented people cannot easily be replaced. This is why some companies are making a conscious effort to help parents navigate the adjustment period after having a new baby.
“Companies need to make space for women to have families and careers—everyone knows that, but there is a disconnect between intellectually understanding that and how we behave toward a woman who does 'want it all,'" says Katia Beauchamp, CEO of beauty subscription box Birchbox. “I could argue that the ambition to have it all should be a great sign to employers."
There are a few ways companies can help keep these ambitious and top-performing employees when they return from family leave.
1. Offer flextime and other family-friendly policies after family leave.
Managing a baby's needs along with a rigid work schedule can make a new parent feel like it's impossible to balance the two.
One way businesses can help them adjust is by being flexible. Flextime can take many forms, including teleworking, flexible hours and part-time schedules. It's important that flexibility isn't seen as a weakness.
“There's a real appreciation here that moms can be ambitious," says Beauchamp. “Just because they need more flexibility doesn't mean they don't have ambition and drive. In fact, new moms are our secret weapon at Birchbox—they are so productive, efficient and grounded."
Another creative approach is to set up a transitional family-friendly co-working space (or purchase spaces in one that already exists). At my company MORE, we're in the process of developing family-friendly spaces where co-working and daycare are offered jointly. This allows a new parent to continue bonding with their baby on breaks and over lunch, while allowing them to focus on work during traditional office hours.
But remember: A family's needs don't stop when a baby is old enough for daycare.
Look at SurveyMonkey, for example. The company recognizes that work and family demands vary, and that employees need the freedom to prioritize accordingly.
“We do this by creating an environment where employees can focus on each of these priorities when they need that most," says Becky Cantieri, senior vice president of human resources at SurveyMonkey. “We're doing this by introducing new—and industry-leading—employee policies."
In addition to 16 weeks of paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, the company offers unlimited personal time off, a four-week sabbatical after four years, extended bereavement leave and more.
“These policies help our employees focus on family when it's a priority," Cantieri says.
2. Create a supportive environment.
All of your employees have a life outside of your business, but new parents returning to work after family leave can feel as if they are leaving a lot behind. This burden is typically hardest on new moms, who might feel a strong societal pressure to be home or to breastfeed. They may also feel a physical urge to be near their babies.
To help address this, Birchbox offers new moms support and services designed just for them that can help with the transition back to work.
Beauchamp explains that the company's return-to-work program includes a two- to four-week paid ramp-up period where new moms come back part-time from maternity leave. There's a buddy program and an internal moms' network to share resources and advice. And there's a lactation room complete with a hospital-grade pump, comfortable furniture, a fridge stocked with drinks and snacks, a phone to take conference calls, laptop charger and baskets for each new mom to store her personal pump.
3. Continually evaluate company culture.
As a company grows and changes and its employees' needs and expectations evolve, it's important to address those needs.
Millennial workers, for example, have different expectations of their employers than Gen Xers did. And as our growing acceptance and appreciation of women and mothers in the workforce continues to shift, so will your company culture.
Including questions about work-life balance in employee surveys and during annual reviews can help you identify gaps and make adjustments.
Returning to work after family leave is hard—so hard that a lot of parents choose not to do it. After I had my son, I was confident it was the best for my family that I not return to work. But perhaps if I had been in a more supportive work environment with family-friendly policies, I might have made a different choice.
Regardless of a company's efforts, of course, some parents will still choose to leave the workforce to care for children. But with an awareness of parents' needs and ongoing reflection and innovation, we can create environments that help parents make that transition and stay in the workforce if they want to.
Read more articles on work-life balance.