Supporting wellbeing with progressive parental leave

By Dani Mcnabb | News, Wellbeing | 8 min read

This week marks World Maternal Mental Health Day. The week-long campaign is dedicated to talking about mental illness during and after pregnancy with the aim to raise awareness and helping those affected access care and support they need to recover. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. Here at edays, we think it is important to acknowledge that having a new baby can impact the mental and physical health of any parent.

In this article, edays People Partner (Talent) Ross looks at ways to support parents before, during and after parental leave ensuring that their work environment champions this new transition in their life.

“I’m hoping to help HR professionals put people into the heart of everything we do.” – Ross

Parental leave is a time of change, fear, excitement, and a whole new way of life for any member of staff in an organization. There are various things you can do to go above and beyond for your employees, but at its core it is about supporting them through a big change in their life. This is broken down into pre, during, and post parental leave. This is more than your SMP (statutory maternity pay) or KIT (keeping in touch) days – this is about having a workforce that trusts you that you’ll support them through one of the biggest changes in their life.

Pre-parental leave

A friend once told me that they were afraid to get pregnant as their business would judge them for it and make their life miserable. Obviously, there is a deep-rooted ER issue that needs sorting, questions on manager training, and protected characteristics, but the concept that someone could be afraid to get pregnant because of company culture is something which I’m sure is not unique.
The role of pregnancy, adoption, and other forms of parental leave are evolving by the day – someone who is pregnant may not identify as female, a father may be wanting to opt into shared parental leave to support his family, or a traditional couple may be looking into other avenues such as adoption. A great start to support people in their journeys can be to remove this bias from the off, maybe change the name of your policies to be more gender neutral, change ‘she’ and ‘he’ to ‘they’, and don’t assume what a person wants to do. There can be such a profound difference between ‘a mother has to take two weeks off following the birth of her child’ and ‘following birth, there is a requirement for the individual to take two weeks off work’ – not only does this encapsulate progressive forward thinking language and support individuals navigating different pathways, but it could also offer safe space for someone who has unexpected still birth and may not feel comfortable with terms like mother.

Another key consideration to look for is what if people need to seek alternative means of fertilizations. Looking at figures provided by HEFA ‘In 2019, almost 53,000 patients had 69,000 fresh and frozen IVF cycles and 5,700 DI cycles at HFEA licensed fertility clinics in the United Kingdom (UK)’. Now thinking back to my friend, if they were afraid to get pregnant because of a work culture, how would they feel about having to ask for medical leave to actually get pregnant. How do you classify their IVF visits? Surely the obvious answer is medical leave, but if you are struggling with something that is that difficult, would something being coined ‘medical’ have any positive connotations? What if it was reclassified as a form of parental leave? This could create a mind shift in the culture and process behind things like this and give people a platform where they feel like they can embrace the changes that come in their life. IVF as a form of parental leave is empowering, as medical leave it is not.

This is then how you build a culture around leave and absence. It needs to be managed, analysed, and understood, but it also needs to be championed so that when they come back they know that their workplace has their back.

During

And then they’re gone. You’ve had confirmation that they have a bundle of joy, now they’ve gone off, you’ve got a replacement in to cover the workload, and you’ll see them in a few months’ time depending on what your leave you offer to staff. Of course, there are KIT and SPLIT days that can be used to ensure they have all the information they need when they return, but could an organization do more?

It appears to be a common misconception that the person that leaves to go on parental leave is going to be the same one that has come back to the office afterwards, or even that they’d want to be the same one. Prolonged exposure to Paw Patrol can fundamentally change a person! So, what is the option for a business to support their individuals? I think this is a great point to talk to your staff about flexible leave and what that truly means for supporting an individual. Is that they can start work at 5am? Does that mean phased return? Does that mean reduced hours? These options need to be signposted and easily accessible to your staff so they know all the different options they have when it comes to getting back into the office. That transparency will go a long way in making them feel supported as their life changes.

The key consideration here, is that what someone intended to do before the arrival of a child, may not be the thing they want to do when their child has arrived. What they thought was possible may not be. There may be unexpected complications for them, or the child may need additional support. So, keep it clear and simple what support there is, so they can make an informed decision on returning from leave, and they feel like they can embrace whatever change is coming their way.

Post

And then they’re back! Charlie has been off for 9 months, they’ve been raising a child, and they’re ready to hit their targets and smash their KPIs just like they did before they left. They still have the gift of the gab and can tell you all the benefits of a world class software which helps business, but they’re also now doubting if their kids have a change of clothes at Grandpa’s this morning. This then is the opportunity to make work their least important priority. The hope is always that Charlie will get back to the top of their targets, but their targets may need adjusting. They may need to start earlier and finish later to ensure that their life works. They may need to finish early every Thursday, which may not be reducing their hours they may want to make it up elsewhere. Your role as a business is to champion these changes in life. Don’t make obstacles and hoops they have to jump through, don’t make them feel like they can’t be good at work and a good parent, make a clean simple process and ask ‘what do you need?’ and then make it happen to the best of your ability.

This comes back to a very difficult conversation about burnout. If someone is pushing themselves too hard in situations like this, they’re ultimately going to have to make a choice between trying to be the best parent they can be, or the best worker they can be. In this situation your business will lose every time – as it should! So be flexible, as in truly flexible, and your employee will see trust from their employer which will help strengthen that relationship, so they know you support them in their work and home life. At the beginning I mentioned my friend who was too scared to have a child, but she did, and she said the business judged her and made her life difficult. So she left. Within a few months the business had asked for her back because they couldn’t fill her role and they needed her back, but she had a new role in a business that supports her in every way so she can be the best person she can be, in the office and at home.

Make it clean, make it simple, and above all else, always put people first.