Earlier this week, we were delighted to host an engaging and interactive return to work panel discussion at Stone & Chalk in Sydney. The evening offered a valuable opportunity for return to work experts and HR leaders to discuss the common issues and challenges parents face when returning to the workforce, and how employers can best support and retain talent at such an unsettling time of life.
Georgiana Williams, Head of Relationships at FlexCareers, hosted the honest and open discussion and was joined by three expert speakers – Partner, Global Head of Pro Bono and Corporate Responsibility at law firm Ashurst, and mum of young twins, Sarah Morton-Ramwell, Registered Nurse at Tresillian, Kerry Harley, and CEO of Flourish Consultancy and FlexCoach, Nikki Hobin.
Parenthood expectations vs reality
Georgie kicked off by asking Sarah about her expectations of becoming a mother and how she thought it would impact on her career as a partner in an international law firm. For Sarah, falling pregnant with twins was an exciting surprise. She just took each week as it came without thinking too much about the reality. But for someone who is naturally optimistic, a high-risk pregnancy, premature birth and the reality of early motherhood was far more difficult than she had anticipated.
As an expert on the postnatal experiences of parents, Kerry acknowledged how normal it is for parenthood expectations not to match the reality. The most common remark she hears from new parents at Tresillian is, “No one told us it was going to be like this.”
“Having a new baby is such a leveller. No matter what your background, circumstances or levels of education, having a baby is life changing. And no matter how much you research, there is very little you can do to prepare for your unique experience. It’s very overwhelming for the majority of new parents.”
Lack of confidence the biggest challenge for women returning to work
Everyone on the panel then agreed a lack of confidence is the biggest challenge for women to overcome when returning to work. Sarah quickly realised she couldn’t “organise an easy way out” with babies. She felt a disconnect between her previous mindset and how she was feeling as a new parent.
As a career coach who’s spent over a decade coaching return to work parents, Nikki stressed that this is a common experience. She explained that returnees often underestimate how different they may feel pre and upon going back to work.
“Lack of confidence and self-belief is a massive challenge for mothers returning to the workforce. Exceptionally capable women find themselves with a new dimension in their lives and have to redefine their value. Priorities change and its crucial to let them know at this stage that it’s OK to feel this way.”
Practical strategies for employers
From a practical point of view, Kerry pointed out that the first six months are the hardest for any new mother given their baby’s reliance on milk. And this is especially the case for women who are breastfeeding. When the time comes for mothers to return to work, often a baby won’t take a bottle which means the mother has to stay on parental leave longer than anticipated.
Kerry recommended all employers should provide new mothers with flexibility to breastfeed so they can return to work sooner. Providing crèche facilities nearby with a private space to breastfeed or express milk in the workplace – other than the toilet – would be the ideal scenario.
Kerry also stressed that women need more support during pregnancy to make sure both mother and baby are happy, healthy and productive.
“There has been lots of research around women’s health in pregnancy and we know high levels of workplace stress and anxiety can have a huge impact on the baby when it’s born. Employers need to nurture women through these stages, including women going through IVF, so they know you care about their health and feel worthwhile. They are then much more likely to come back to work with a positive attitude.”
Nikki agreed employers need to recognise there is a great deal of vulnerability for parents at this point in their lives. Return to work challenges are so varied and dependent on individual circumstances and how you support employees has to be taken on a case by case basis. In short, it’s all about the individual.
For Nikki, the benefits of investing in return to work coaching programs are huge. “Coaches provide an exceptionally safe place for parents to go, where they can be honest without risk of being judged. It’s definitely an investment for HR teams but the rewards and impact on retaining top talent in your business are significant.”
Nikki also recommended creating return to work communities within workplaces to enable parents to tap into a huge support network and share experiences. She also cautioned HR leaders to be aware of benevolent bias. You might think you have every good intention in not considering a new parent for a promotion or travel opportunity, but you need to ask and have that conversation as everyone is different.
The Cascade Effect
The panel then agreed the success of return to work programs is largely dependent on the buy-in and commitment from senior managers. In fact, according to Nikki, there is a direct correlation between someone’s manager and whether or not they have a positive or negative experience when they return to work.
“We have to educate and convert senior managers on the importance of return to work programs so this cascades down and changes the culture. HR teams need to share success stories internally so the flexibility required at this time is embedded and embraced.”
Nikki and Sarah both agreed that in Sarah’s case, her return to work experience as a senior partner has had a huge positive impact on the way she now manages her team.
“My team is incredibly flexible with parents working in all manner of work arrangements, from part-time, work from home, flexible hours and so on.”
For Sarah, her perceptions as a leader have shifted and she is always open to new return to work arrangement requests.
“I’ve got a superstar team which I am desperate to keep. There have been times when I’ve been presented with a particularly unusual flexibility request and I’ve had to check my initial discomfort and have an open conversation. I’ve always stressed that after three months, if it’s not working for the business, then we need to come up with another solution. The ball is then in their court to prove the arrangement will work and in my experience, they will go above and beyond to make it work.
“If a valued member of your team can complete their work to the same level as they did before going on parental leave, but just in a different way, then it’s a win-win for everyone.”
HR needs to champion return to work programs
In closing, Nikki stressed the importance of HR championing return to work programs and keeping the pressure on resistance from within.
“Part of this evening’s event was to help you understand it can be really hard to implement return to work programs. Businesses aren’t yet identifying the commercial returns and sometimes it feels like a box ticking exercise rather than something we’re passionate about. Please keep pushing as we know the retention outcomes are huge.”
Thank you so much to all of our panellists and for everyone who attended our event. If you would like to discuss how FlexCareers can assist you with your Return to Work program, please contact Georgiana Williams, Head of Relationships at FlexCareers.