The transition to being a working parent can be a bumpy road for many employees. The juggle of caring for a new baby, managing a home, and excelling in their job can be challenging.

To navigate this transition, employees are asking for support from their workplace. One survey found that 53% of employees want help balancing parenthood with the demands of their job. Not offering this support can be detrimental: Many parents reduce their working hours to allow for childcare, particularly new mothers who often take on more caregiving responsibilities. This impacts the number of women in the workplace, with 43% of new mothers never returning to their role after maternity leave.

Understanding the challenges unique to returning to work after paternity or maternity leave is crucial for companies to better support the needs of their employees. Here we share what these difficulties are, and how helping to overcome them benefits both employees and the business.

The biggest challenges employees face as a new parent

Becoming a parent is a life-altering experience. From new priorities to a completely new routine, having a child isn't always easy. One of the biggest challenges is managing a career with a new baby, particularly in the early days and weeks after their work return date. Some of the common struggles facing new parents include:

Recovery from childbirth

While all employees adjust to welcoming a baby into their lives, birthing parents are also recuperating from physical and mental effects of pregnancy and labor.

This period doesn't look the same for anyone—birthing parents will recover at different rates, with different postpartum symptoms. For many new parents, the recovery period is a long journey that continues for many months after they're back at work. There are over 28 physical postpartum symptoms that birthing parents commonly report, including pelvic dysfunctions, headaches, heavy bleeding, fevers, and uterine infections.

During this time, employees who have given birth also often deal with hormonal fluctuations and mood swings. This is very common, with 85% of employees experiencing some degree of mood disturbance after childbirth. Being mindful of emotions after pregnancy and encouraging new parents to prioritize their mental health is critical to postpartum recovery.

Breastfeeding & pumping

For new birthing parents that decide to breastfeed, pumping away from home is often regarded as one of the biggest sources of stress when returning to their jobs. Breastfeeding is already a challenge for many women, with two-thirds of new mothers reporting issues in breastfeeding from latching to low milk supply. But going back to work introduces new difficulties.

Workplace accommodations for pumping are often insufficient and office cultures make it difficult to take the necessary breaks for pumping. Research shows that breastfeeding offers many health benefits for infants and mothers, providing essential nutrition and protection against common childhood infections. For new parents, having a safe and comfortable private space to pump and breastfeed is a crucial part of work-life balance.

The second shift

In households with children under six where both parents work full-time, women spend 4.57 hours per day on housework and childcare, compared to 2.91 hours for men. As a result of the imbalance, mothers are 30% more likely than fathers to turn down a promotion, and more than twice as likely to quit their jobs altogether.

During the pandemic, many families have been left without in-person school and childcare—and additional childcare burdens have largely fallen on the shoulders of moms. Due to this increased responsibility, almost 1 million mothers have left the workforce.

study by Maven and Great Place to Work found that not only is burnout the biggest threat to attrition for working parents, but that people of color are disproportionately affected. Compared to white moms, Black moms were 47% more likely to experience burnout, Hispanic moms were 23% more likely to experience burnout, and Asian moms were 33% more likely to experience burnout.

Heightened emotions

Coming back to work after having a baby is a career transition like no other. The emotional journey of returning to work after parental leave is varied and changes with every day. Here are some, but not all, of the emotions new parents may experience. 

  • Guilt: It's common to feel guilty about leaving a newborn baby. After spending so much time together during parental leave, it can feel strange to suddenly be apart. But the truth is, kids of working parents do well. A study from Harvard Business School found that in the long-run, many children benefit emotionally and economically from having working parents. 
  • Sadness: Feeling sad and overwhelmed is often a part of adjusting to going back to work. Unexpected waves of emotion are normal and part of the process, even if they may feel strange to express in the workplace. It's important for employees to be kind to themselves and express their emotions in safe, nonjudgmental spaces.   
  • Excitement: It's also completely normal to want to go back to a job. Employees should feel comfortable letting their conflicting emotions occur without criticism. Returning to work they enjoy or a familiar routine can bring balance to a disordered time. 
  • Anxiety: Postpartum anxiety can contribute to intrusive thoughts, worrying about the child's safety and well-being. Encouraging employees to have regular check-ins with their child's caregiver and connecting them to mental health resources can help new parents navigate this anxiety.

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Supporting parents returning to work after parental or maternity leave

Upon returning to the office, new parents often fear that they won't be able to manage their new responsibilities successfully and that they'll be viewed as less capable than before they had a baby. Here's how employers can help reduce working parents' stress.

Provide paid parental leave

Balancing the financial impact of unpaid leave with the need to spend time with their child is one of the hardest decisions for employees.

The U.S. is one of the only countries without any national laws regarding paid family leave, only providing a minimum of 12 weeks unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This means that the majority of birthing parents return to work very soon after giving birth.

The first thing employers can do to help parents return to the office is by providing equitable parental leave policies for both parents, or those who grew their families through adoption or surrogacy.

Providing paid parental leave can also make a difference to the whole family's health and well-being. Studies show that paid parental leave can lead to reduced postpartum depression, increased breastfeeding rates, and better infant health.

There's also direct benefits to the business too. Despite the initial cost of paid leave to employers, it can result in a better bottom line through improved engagement, loyalty, and productivity.

Re-onboarding in the first week

In the first few weeks, new working parents may be scared that they won't be up-to-date on the skills or knowledge required to do their job. Managers and HR leaders can quell this fear by thoroughly reviewing responsibilities and giving a comprehensive (but not overwhelming) status update of changes so they know what has happened while they've been out.

Most parents appreciate starting work on a go-forward basis — getting up to speed, but not needing to sift through thousands of emails to figure out the minutiae of what they missed. 

Schedule time into the first week to run through any changes to clients, processes, projects, and management. It's also useful to keep touch with employees during their paternity or maternity leave and before they return to work to keep them in the loop of any big changes.

Flexibility for family members

Flexibility can make a huge difference in returning to work after maternity leave. Whether this means a gradual phase-in back to work, flexible hours, or work-from-home options, giving employees the autonomy to decide when and how they can best come back is key.

This adaptability makes it easier for parents to adjust to their new schedule and deal with things such as nap time, lack of sleep, and balancing the load whilst they establish a childcare plan. It can also help birthing parents to cope with symptoms of postpartum depression, which can affect up to 20% of women. These feelings can increase tiredness, reduce focus, and make it hard for parents to take care of themselves. Being able to schedule work around their physical and mental health needs can be instrumental as parents transition back into the office.

A flexible culture also means being adjustable when pediatrician appointments, sick days, and emergencies come up. Having a sick child is extremely stressful, so ensure supportive conversations occur to reassure employees that flexible hours are in place.

Create community

Being a working parent can feel isolating, and resources and community support can make a difference for employees. Giving employees access to on-demand support from specialists like lactation consultants, pediatricians, and career coaches can help employees navigate this new phase of life.

Classes, online forums, and ERGs (employee resource groups) for parents and caregivers can also foster connection and communication. Speaking with other working parents can help feelings of isolation or uncertainty among employees.

Make sure there's space for pumping

Clear lactation policies and a comfortable, private space that operates as a designated lactation room can ease women's anxiety about pumping while at work and help them to continue breastfeeding as a working mother.

To ease the return to a busy job, convenient breast milk shipping services can also ensure that breastfeeding parents are able to travel for work while still caring for their newborn.

Provide extended maternity benefits

Parents need more support than they currently receive, which is why maternity benefits and policies are so important in the workplace. Maven's Maternity and Newborn Care program provides access to lactation consultants, midwives, mental health professionals, and other speciality care providers who can provide assistance as and when it's needed.

Maven's programs are also proven to support employees returning to work, with 26% of Maternity members report that Maven influenced their decision to return to work after birth.

How Maven can help employees return to work after maternity leave

Maven is the world’s largest virtual clinic for women and families on a mission to make healthcare work for all of us. From preconception and family building to pregnancy, postpartum, return to work, parenting, menopause and beyond, Maven’s intuitive platform removes barriers to accessing holistic support, while improving health outcomes and return-to-work rates and reducing costs for employers. 

To learn more about how Maven can support your employees as they return to work after maternity leave (and beyond), contact us today.

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