Want to retain new parents? Focus on the return-to-work phase.

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While plenty of attention has been given to the need for and length of parental leave, there’s another transitional stage after having or adopting a baby that requires arguably as much focus: the return to work.

Often, parents — especially birthing parents — make the decision not to return at all. A February 2020 survey conducted by LinkedIn and Censuswide found that nearly half of moms take an extended break after the birth of their children, with the average time being about two years. 

And for those who do return after leave, more than half said they didn’t feel they had a choice in the matter, with finances being the overwhelming driver of the decision. Three career-related fears follow behind: the fear of losing their job, the fear of not being able to move up and the fear of becoming irrelevant in their careers.

The results point to an ambivalence among returning parents, particularly mothers — many of whom are weighing physical recovery, adjustment to a new role, sleep deprivation and potentially guilt at pivoting attention from their child with a desire to get back to normal and resume professional activities. This phase can be crucial for employers to demonstrate the value of their culture and, if they approach it right, potentially retain valuable employees for years to come.

Embrace the parent’s new identity

The shift in workplace mindset toward new parents should come long before the return to work, Gina Nebesar, chief product officer of family benefits platform Ovia Health, told HR Dive. In fact, according to data collected by Ovia, many people make the decision whether or not to return after parental leave while in the early stages of pregnancy. 

Thinking about the future, pregnant employees are “looking around at their organizations and trying to find examples, specifically of leaders, that have the type of flexibility and work-life harmony that they’re looking for from that postpartum experience,” Nebesar said. If they hadn’t been paying attention before, pregnant employees become particularly attuned to how parents are treated in the workplace.

How management reacts to the news of the pregnancy can be the first signal. “We do a lot around cultural training and manager training,” Nebesar said of Ovia’s approach both to its own workplace and the employers it partners with. Ovia’s training gives managers the tools to connect employees with parenthood resources and support. It also covers the sensitivity training managers sometimes lack, “so that when someone says ‘I’m pregnant,’ the first word out of your mouth is ‘Congratulations,’” Nebesar said.

A pregnant worker gives a presentation at the office.

A pregnant worker gives a presentation at the office. Embracing parents at work begins during pregnancy.

Anchiy via Getty Images


Employers need to understand or remember that “it’s a whole new identity overnight, becoming a parent,” Nebesar said — one that can become even more challenging when employees don’t see the systems or norms in place to support them, or even hear an acknowledgment of their major life transition from colleagues and managers. 

Melissa Wirt, CEO and founder of Latched Mama and a mother of six children, emphasized the same point. “You are not the same person on the other side of [pregnancy and childbirth], whether it’s baby number one or baby number six … and it teaches you immeasurable things,” she said. “You completely change as a human being, as a mother, but you also change as an employee.”

The boot camp experience of caring for a newborn gives birthing and nonbirthing parents alike a new and different skill set — one that employers can benefit from, if they can recognize it. From project management skills that come from remembering feeding schedules and tracking a child’s progress to deepened emotional skills developed through practicing patience, parents bring a lot to the table

“I think we need to highlight the skills and the strengths that [new parents] have developed while also paying attention to the fact that they are a new person — a changed person,” Wirt said.

Use flexibility to its full advantage

For HR and managers, an employee’s post-leave return to work is the perfect time to make good on a company’s promises about flexibility and culture. Discussions about what pregnancy, parental leave and the return to work may look like are a good place to start, Nebesar said.

Upon returning, employees who work from home may have their baby nearby some or all of the time, making breastfeeding a frequent part of the workday. Many of those who return to an office will choose to pump, requiring a clean, private space they will need to use several times per day.