Maneuvering Maternity Leave: Returning to Work

This HR leader recently returned to work after maternity leave. Using her unique perspective as a mom and as an HR professional, she provides strategies for how HR professionals can aid new parents transitioning back to work.

Gretchen Van Vlymen, StratEx

Before having a baby, I always admired working moms because I knew balancing work and home life would be “challenging.”  However, it wasn’t until I returned to work after my own maternity leave that I truly came to understand the plight of the working parent first hand, and to call it “a challenge” is an understatement.

To explain the experience to someone who hasn’t gone through this, I liken it to a constant state of sleep deprivation, confusion and a nagging sense of worry all in one: like the feeling you get when you’ve walked into a room to do something and forgetting why you’re there, or when you’re about to make an important point in an argument and totally forget what you were about to say. It’s overwhelming and frustrating for even the most organized new parent!

Working moms and dads alike are shell-shocked upon their return because they are handling their regular workload along with long nights, childcare woes, stricter budgets, runny noses and a newfound sense of guilt if they aren’t able to spend as much time with their little one as they once did while on leave. Moms especially feel the physical burden of squeezing pumping sessions into their already packed day, or fitting into work clothes that they once wore before they were pregnant.

Given all this drama, how can organizations make parents’ transition back to work less scary, while also ensuring retention and continued productivity?

  • Keep in Touch: Make the return easier by keeping in touch throughout the course of the leave. Text, call or email the employee while they are out to set expectations about the date that they will be back, ensure that their benefit premiums are somehow collected along the way, and have a good method of requesting an extension should the employee need one. That said, keep in mind that badgering them or asking them to correspond too frequently can be bothersome and may turn into something negative.
  • Toe in the Water: Ease the new parent into coming back to work by allowing them to come back on a part-time basis before their full-time return. This way they aren’t faced with a million calls, questions and emails all at once. It makes the experience a lot less intimidating if the employee can take it at a slower pace, and then they can hit the ground running when they are fully back in the saddle. However, make sure that the employee is paid for any work performed while they are operating in part-time capacity to avoid possible wage and hour issues.
  • New Parent Accommodations: The company needs to be equipped with accommodations that are legally required — like a place to express breast milk — and those that are “nice to have” such as flex time, on-site daycare, dependent care benefits or work from home arrangements. These aspects of a career are super important to new moms and dads, and they make it tough to leave if another job opportunity arises elsewhere. In fact, these benefits are more highly valued than annual salary for many parents.

These strategies help new parents recognize that although this process is definitely challenging, it can be quite gratifying, too! There is a lot of mental toughness required, but many employees say they are better parents if they can have a rewarding work life separate from their home life. Smart companies recognize that retaining these experienced, multi-tasking workers is a competitive advantage, and showcasing just a little bit of empathy and compassion for them both as parents and professionals will yield a happy and loyal workforce.

Also Read: Maneuvering Maternity Leave Part 1: Mapping Out Maternity Leave

Also Read: Maneuvering Maternity Leave Part 2: Preparation

Gretchen Van Vlymen, a 2016 Workforce Game Changer, is the head of HR at StratEx. She was also pregnant recently, so maternity leave policies are high priority for her. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.