Employers Help New Parents Transition Back to Work

December 8, 2008
For most working mothers, finding out that they are pregnant just weeks after returning to work from the birth of their first child would be stressful.

    But Andrea Dunning, a senior staffing specialist at Prudential Financial, wasn’t at all nervous about telling her employer that she was going on leave again. In fact, Dunning doesn’t anticipate being out more than the two months she was with her first child Ryan.

    That’s because Prudential is one company that offers an array of programs, including onsite child care and lactation consulting, to help new parents transition back into the workforce.

    Last January, when Dunning gave birth to her son, she had been a Prudential employee for only four months. Despite that, her manager allowed her to work from home for her final month of pregnancy rather than have her make the 40-minute commute to Prudential’s Newark, New Jersey, headquarters.

    After taking two months off, she was able to work 12 weeks part time before transitioning back to full time. And when she came back, through a company program, she was allowed to keep Ryan at one of Prudential’s onsite daycare for four weeks.

    "Prudential has helped so much with the transition back into the workforce," Dunning says. "It really has made everything so much less stressful."

    Until recently, most employers focused their maternity programs on pregnant employees or dependents, says Marianne Stook, managing director at LifeCare, an employee assistance program that is planning a pilot program to target new parents returning to work.

    "A lot of firms are concerned about rising maternity costs, but they are also concerned about their return-to-work metrics," Stook says. "Most programs, however, stop once the baby is born because the pregnancy is over. But there are a lot of persistent issues and new ones that can crop up during that phase."

    A recent study of 2,000 HR managers conducted by ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee assistance provider, found that 55 percent of respondents say the biggest challenge posed by pregnancy and adoption in their workforces is employees extending their leave.

    For Prudential, helping new parents makes clear business sense, says Maureen Corcoran, the company’s vice president of diversity. More than half of the financial services company’s 20,000 U.S. employees have children living with them. Forty-one percent have toddlers.

    "When employees are able to have their life needs as well as their work needs met, they are more highly engaged and hopefully they tell a friend or two," Corcoran says. "Smart companies will recognize the cost/benefit of having trained and valuable employees continuing to contribute."

    To gauge the effectiveness of its offerings to new parents, Prudential tracked the turnover of employees who took short-term disability. Two years later, attrition for that group is the same as for the general population of employees, Corcoran says.

Helping with care
    The most substantial way that employers can help new parents transition back into the workforce is by offering daycare, experts say. Prudential has three offsite daycare centers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which can take up to 100 children total. One center is for full-time care, while the other two are for back-up care, Corcoran says. On top of that, through Prudential’s Good Start program, new parents can keep their children at one of the onsite daycare centers for four consecutive weeks after they return to work.

    "This program allows parents to come back to work earlier while continuing to bond with their children," Corcoran says. It also helps to address separation anxiety that many new parents can have, she says.

    Dunning says that Good Start made a huge difference in getting her comfortable with going back to work after Ryan was born. "My first week back I was checking on him three or four times a day," she says. "But by the fourth week, maybe I showed up at lunch."

    San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems also offers onsite daycare for its 17,000 employees working out of its headquarters and nearby offices. The technology company even has cameras in each of the centers so that parents can check in on their kids from their computers at their desks, says Pam Hymel, director, corporate medical programs.

    "We think that productivity might actually be improved if parents don’t have to worry about what’s going on with their kids," she says.

    Turnover among employees who use the child-care facilities is 50 percent less than it is for the regular employee base, according to Hymel.

    "Those parents can feel good about where their children are being cared for," she says. "We are able to better retain them, and retention is key to improving productivity."

    Cisco also believes that offering daycare can help with recruiting talent. To this end, the company is opening a child-care center in Bangalore in 2009 for its 5,000 employees there. "I think it will be a big draw for women particularly," Hymel says. Cisco plans to have 10,000 employees in Bangalore over the next few years.

    For companies that can’t afford to build their own onsite child care centers, offering information on where parents can find child care or in-home care is incredibly helpful, experts say. Both Prudential and Cisco do this through their employee assistance providers.

    Additionally, both companies offer free lactation consulting for new moms. Both also make private spaces available for nursing. (Such private spaces are required by law in California. As of August 2008, 21 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico had workplacelaws related to breastfeeding in the workplace.

Emotional assistance
    While offering logistical assistance in finding child care is a significant way that employers can help new parents transition back into the workforce, providing emotional support is also key, experts say.

    "There is a lot of guilt associated with leaving a baby and going back to work," says Alison Thayer, clinical manager at ComPsych. "For a woman who is working 10 to 11 hours a day, this could be a struggle."

    ComPsych and LifeCare are among a number of EAPs that offer counseling for new parents as they go back into the workforce. Officials at both companies say employers are increasingly highlighting these services as part of their offerings to pregnant women or new parents.

    To address a growing demand, LifeCare is launching another program, Maternity Connection, in 2009. While the Shelton, Connecticut-based EAP has offered Mothers at Work, a lactation-consulting support program, the company wanted to address employers’ concerns about not only cutting costs of pregnant employees and dependents, but also improving return-to-work metrics, Stook says.

    With Maternity Connection, pregnant employees or dependents will receive calls from a LifeCare counselor, starting when they first tell their companies they are pregnant. The calls are timed to each trimester of pregnancy, along with one call at the beginning of their leave and one when they return to work. "And they can call their counselor anytime they want," Stook says.

    Topics for new moms include ways of handling the stress of caring for a baby, nursing support and going back to work, Stook says. There are different tracks for new dads, as well as a track for parents of babies with special needs.

    LifeCare will pilot the program with about three employers, but has gotten interest from six.

    On top of offering access to its EAP, Prudential also has trained in-house counselors who provide seminars to families and parents. Recently, the company offered prenatal classes and a class on dealing with childhood obesity. Cisco’s 38,000 U.S. employees can get additional support from one another through the company’s online interest groups. Employees can sign up and e-mail one another, and a couple of the groups are dedicated to parenting issues, Hymel says.

    "It’s a great way for employees to exchange information," she says. There are 1,800 users of Cisco’s working moms group and parenting group.

Flex work
    One of the easiest and least expensive ways that employers can help new parents transition back into the workforce is by allowing them to work flexibly, experts say. "Most of our supervisors are willing to work with moms so that they can come back part time," Hymel says.

    At Prudential, 67 percent of U.S. employees have a flexible work schedule, which could be telecommuting, job-sharing or working a compressed workweek, Corcoran says.

    In these tough economic times, it’s an easy way to retain new parents and keep them productive, experts say. "Work/life policies and flexibility cost nothing," says Brad Harrington, executive director for the center of Work and Family at Boston College.

    For Dunning, the ability to work part time and from home when she needs to has made it easier for her to continue to work. Even though her husband will be staying home with the kids after she goes back to work, she loves the idea that she has flexibility and access to the Good Start program, she says.

    "We know that my husband will have time to transition to being home with the kids and I will be able to transition to going back to work," she says. "It just makes it a lot easier."