Returning to work after Parental Leave in the COVID-19 era.
As someone who didn’t have kids till the late noughties, I remember the advice that I used to give expectant employees. I thought that because I had friends and relations who had recently had kids that I was giving good advice on what to expect with regard to work and parenting, post baby. I would say:
“I know before giving birth people assume they’ll be able to work an 8 hour day from home and look after the baby at the same time, but people tell me it’s much harder that it sounds”.
“Even if you have the prefect baby who sleeps all the time, I’ve been told that coming back to work with a baby at home (or in childcare) can be hard emotionally at first”.
“Working from home is definitely an option for 1 or 2 days a week, but I’ve been told it’s not a total solution if you don’t use some form of childcare as well”.
And it was all relevant and valid advice. After I had my own babies I realised that while my advice had been reasonably accurate, there was much more that I hadn’t known about or taken into consideration because, you know, I hadn’t returned to work from Parental Leave.
It’s tricky coming back to work after the birth of a baby. Whether you are a mother or father and whether or not your employer chooses to categorise your parenthood into in the Fair Work Act defined primary or secondary caring roles, those first steps back into the workplace after a period of leave looking after a baby, can be filled with uncertainty and challenges.
Now add in COVID-19 and we are looking at a vastly new world for parents who are about to return to work after having, adopting or fostering a child.
Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the return to work uncertainties have included:
How am I going to cope at work when I am already so tired?
Have my workplace needs and wants changed with the birth of my child?
Have my priorities in life changed?
Is my child going to get the right care while I am at work?
Can I afford childcare?
Can I work from home while looking after my child at the same time?
Will my boss make me work business hours from home, or will they let me be flexible as long as I get the work done?
Am I being selfish wanting to return to work?
How do I tell my boss that I don’t want to work full time anymore?
How do I tell my boss I do want to come back and work full time?
Will I be able to cope with the workload they give me?
I’m worried my boss won’t give me stimulating work due to assumptions about assumed tiredness or priorities.
What if they don’t adjust my workload in line with my reduced hours of work?
What if they give me lower level work than I used to do before I went on leave?
My boss is telling me that I’m being moved into a different job, because I’m not as available now I have a child. Is that legal?
My boss appears to be angry that I want to come back to work. The boss think’s I’m being selfish and not considering the needs of the business in asking to come back to work fewer days a week. How do I deal with that?
Now thanks to COVID-19 we can also add in:
How do I carve out a workspace at home?
How can I afford to set up a workstation at home?
My wife, husband, partner is working from home currently. How will we all be able to concentrate / not get in each other’s way / find privacy for confidential conversations?
I’m not sure about putting my child into any form of childcare outside my home in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.
I don’t want to invite anyone into my home to look after my child.
As well as the still often experienced challenges:
Employees and Managers not understanding their legal obligations under the Fair Work Act.
Employee’s not advocating for their rights under the Fair Work Act (I get it, you’re tired).
Managers & business owners not caring about their legal obligations to you.
You have difficultly articulating how your needs and wants as an employee have changed
Other workmates resent that you had time off and are now back at work. (The “it’s not fair that you get a paid holiday just because you had a child” attitude).
You have to fit back into a team that has changed while you were away. This equals a new team dynamic.
You experience people saying “oh I’d love to have a long weekend every week” as if you are being paid on the days you are not at work.
So how can you reduce the uncertainty and minimise the challenges when returning to work after Parental Leave? Here is a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help you manage this important transition.
Understand your rights. If HR or your Manager didn’t give you the information, then get online and start searching “parental leave rights under the Fair Work Act”. The Fair Work Commission has made it easy and has a downloadable Fact Sheet.
Start a dialog with your manager a couple of months before your return to work date. If your manager isn’t playing ball, ask HR to get involved to help your manager understand your rights, their obligations and why people returning to work from Parental Leave is an amazing bonus for the organisation.
If you don’t have HR in your workplace, find an advocate who can help support you. (We do employee advocacy…just saying!)
Cut yourself some slack: the first few days and weeks may be hard (especially if there has been significant change while you were away) but you will get there. Celebrate small wins like actually getting into the office at all after a sleepless night. A small win is still a win and will grow in time.
If you do return to work at home, cut yourself some slack. Everybody else has been working from home for months and it took a while for them to adjust to working from home. Use this; ask how colleagues adjusted and what works for them in regard to time management, setting goals and working around the (possible) disruption of others who are also working or schooling from home.
Make sure you touch base with your manager and HR to ask them for feedback on how the transition is going. After an appropriate time, give feedback to your boss and HR on how the transition felt from your perspective and how it could be improved for the person after you.
Find your tribe: you may have meet other parents who planned on going back to work at your local ‘parents group’, your organisation may have a networking group of parents who have returned to work, or you could join an online forum. Whatever it is, find your tribe who can support you and offer advice on being a parent and back at work.
Understand what your priorities are now. If they are different figure out how you can explain this to your boss without it resulting in being demoted, sidelined or terminated. This is where your Tribe will come into play. Find someone you can talk to about how to approach this with your Manager
Be aware of and open to change. You know that change is one of life’s few constants. So work out when you can embrace it and when you just have to accept it.
Make sure you have confidence in your childcare provider. It will make your time at work less stressful knowing that your child is safe and well cared for.
Don’t ignore your rights. Resignation shouldn’t be the only option if you do or don’t want to go back to your previous hours of work. Seek support and guidance to help you stand up for your legal right to return to work.
Don’t let others punish you because they struggle to cope with change. If your Manager or a colleague can’t cope with you coming back to work or the changes occurring in tandem with your return, talk to HR about it so they can support both you and your Manager or colleague.
Don’t be scared. While it may feel so hard at the start, it is like riding a bike. You’ll remember how to balance and be back at top speed again before you know it.
Remember, if you need someone to advocate for you or help you to prepare for the conversation about returning to work, we can help.