There have been numerous articles on how difficult the pandemic has been on the workforce, from combating isolation and loneliness to prioritizing self-care and easing and managing the burdens placed on working parents. But what about the challenges that have been placed on a specific set of working parents? That is, those who are caring for a baby, took leave, and are returning to work during the pandemic.
How are these parents being welcomed back and supported during a time when they are managing great change in both their personal and professional lives?
Here are the stories of two women who work for large, international companies. In describing their personal experiences of returning to work after maternity leave, they show how other employers and managers can best support their people in similar situations.
Rebecca knew that 2020 would include major life changes. She had accepted a new role at her tech company and was expecting her second child in March. But like with everything else in 2020, things didn’t go as planned. Her baby arrived six weeks early and stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for weeks. Then, a few days after her baby was released from the hospital, the world shut down for the pandemic.
Her husband still went to his job each day as an essential worker while she faced the demands of a toddler and newborn at home. In addition, given the global economic slowdown, she was anxious about her job security while she was on leave. “It was really scary,” she said. “My face and my name were not in the mix.”
Employees returning to work after a major life event are at risk of burnout, a loss in productivity, or leaving the workforce. But new parents who are returning to the workforce during a pandemic were, and still are, in particularly uncharted territory. One of the most important things HR leaders can do is listen and seek to understand these parents as they return to work – whether it’s from home or the office.
“My manager at the time was always reassuring me that I needed to focus on my family,” she said. “Her constant reassurance was really helpful.”
It’s critical that organizations have visibility into the changing needs of all employees as they adjust to new ways of working. Listening to employee concerns and getting insights into their well-being means you can improve the employee experience, a critical part of business continuity.
For managers to lead people effectively today, they need more insights about employees, says Christine Andrukonis, the founder of Notion Consulting and an expert in helping leaders change behavior.
“I like to say that 50% of the work is about the work itself and 50% of the work is about the people and what’s happening behind-the-scenes for the people involved in the work,” she explained to Thrive Global. “And leaders have to have that mindset. Until they can appreciate that half of this success relies on the human beings and what’s going on with them, it’s going to be really hard to optimize everything at 100%.”
Managers in particular can do more to provide resources and support. Here are four ways to start.
Set Expectations and Manage Communication
With childcare availability and schools in flux, many new parents are also in a critical phase of bonding with their newborns.
After Rebecca returned to work, she said one of the biggest challenges was the sustained level of expectation to deliver. For example, despite the company’s generous offer of an extended 10 days of paid time off, she said she couldn’t take PTO days in light of her growing workload.
“When the pandemic first hit, I didn’t feel any reset of expectations. Part of this is potentially just on me and my work ethic,” she said. “You can offer all the time off in the world, but if the expectations on delivery don’t change, I can’t use that time.”
While paid time off and flexible leave policies are incredibly important, employees need ongoing discussions with managers to make the most of those offerings. Otherwise, company-wide e-mail communication and brochures do little to help new parents.
“Management conversations are really important, because those are the ones that feel real,” she said. “They’re tangible to you as an employee.”
To provide companies with tools to help ensure employees have the emotional and mental health support to navigate constant change, Thrive Global and SAP published the guide, “Creating a Healthy and Positive Work Experience.” Managers and leaders can learn about improving their communication, expectation setting, and workload management for all workforces – including remote, on-site, and hybrid.
Support Caretakers and New Moms in Career Transitions
After Michele, a marketing and event planning executive, returned to work in the summer, she had to recalibrate her skills when conferences turned into virtual events. She received a major first assignment upon her return.
“The good news is that I love the fact that they trusted me,” she said. “The bad news is that babies are quite demanding.”
Since giving birth to her second child in early March, Michele was juggling breastfeeding a newborn as she worked remotely. While her company offered a one-month transition period through part-time hours, her workload wasn’t commensurate with a part-time schedule.
“That benefit is great, but the truth is I was working full-time,” she said, adding that she often took early calls with colleagues in Europe while also communicating with her local team.
Managers should have conversations to evaluate if and how they can ease employees back into the workforce to ensure a manageable workload. Many high performers don’t want to turn down a career-advancing opportunity, but managers can do their part to help set boundaries toward longer-term goals. For example, they can assign high-visibility opportunities in a later phase of post-leave return, so boundaries don’t limit employees’ careers.
To make sure caretakers have more opportunities in the workplace, many companies are trying to identify learning and development opportunities that challenge the employee, allowing them to gain new skills and grow.
Sustain Personal Mental and Physical Health
In typical times, caring for a newborn can be an isolating experience. With social distancing measures in place, many feel grief and frustration that they can’t share this milestone with others. Michele said that having her second baby during this health crisis highlighted this void.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “What’s different today is everybody is scared. I don’t expect anyone to come and bring me a lasagna just because I gave birth. But at the same time, I don’t have the same social interactions compared to what I had with my first.”
Some psychologists are concerned that pandemic isolation is contributing to more anxiety and postpartum depression, which can begin anytime within the first year after birth. According to the World Health Organization, before the pandemic about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who had just given birth experienced a mental health disorder, primarily depression. Companies can support these employees by offering resources that allow them to seek help, including virtual appointments for addressing physical and mental health.
Many employees can benefit from professional or virtual coaching for stress management, emotional support, and actionable guidance. And, especially for new parents, employers should provide clear communication about these benefits.
In addition, financial wellness has been linked to overall health. Financial wellness platforms can help employees create a manageable budget and pay down debt. With less to worry about when it comes to personal finances, employees have the opportunity to be at their best and most productive.
Advance Learning and Career Development Initiatives
For many new parents, returning to the workplace can remind them of their first day in the office as they face new people and ways of working. Employers can help provide a smoother transition through mentorship platforms and introductions to key team members.
And it’s important that leaders continually offer opportunities and experiences that develop employees. “Up is not the only way to grow in one’s career,” Terrence Seamon, an executive career transition consultant at The Ayers Group, told Thrive Global.
Mentors can share learning programs to help guide their mentees, and employers can support frequent dialogue and feedback. A succession and development solution can provide smart recommendations for people on whom to connect with to help them develop.
Through a learning management system, employees can create a plan to help tackle issues specific to them, whether it’s returning to work after having a baby or getting up to speed on any changes that occurred in their particular area of work. Some solutions deliver an immersive learning experience to help employees achieve their goals.
Support and Understand Employees
During any challenge, people must be the priority for businesses. But generous benefits for new parents could make little impact on employees if companies and managers aren’t listening as well. As Rebecca put it, in her return to work she “actually felt really supported but not understood.” It’s important that your people know that, in the face of uncertainty, they will remain the backbone of business continuity.
“If you’re going to offer a benefit from a corporate level, you need to ensure that a manager can truly work with a team to let them take advantage of those benefits,” Michele said. “You know, walk the talk.”
For new parents, recognition can go a long way. “If they know that you are going the extra mile,” Michele said, “just send a quick email saying, ‘We see what you’re going through, and we appreciate you.’”
Discover more ways to offer support to working parents when they need it most so they can get back to best and experience wins in their personal and professional lives.
Carolyn Judge Phillip is vice president of Corporate Marketing for SAP SuccessFactors.