Supporting parent returners in a post-pandemic world

Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Adviser, Resourcing and Inclusion at the CIPD and Lisa Carver, Carver Coaching who has published research on supporting parent returners as well as supporting workplace returners in general during the pandemic, discuss the ways in which employers can support parent returners in a post pandemic world.

Whether employees are returning to work following maternity, parental or carers’ leave, or a voluntary career break, it can take time to adjust back into the workplace after a prolonged period of absence.

There are some common barriers which often stop people from feeling ‘ready’ to return.  Such as lowered confidence, physical and mental health issues, carrying guilt for not working along with guilt for returning to work.  Often time away has meant that their workplace relationships have become silent, which leaves a space to be filled with worry and potential anxiety.  With significant life change might also come a change in identity causing confusion and conflict around purpose and goals.  In addition, returning to work may mean a shift for the entire household in terms of chores and logistics which can bring it’s own teething problems. So, it’s important that they get the support that they need.

There are several steps organisations can take to support parent returners, including:

Flexible and agile working practices

Parents or carers often need greater flexibility built into their contracts – especially in the short-term. Being flexible on working from home or start and finish times on particular days can make a significant difference to their ability to do the best job that they can as well as managing their other commitments.  Some tried and tested ideas that came out of a flexible hiring champions pilot we ran with Timewise, include:

  • ‘Flexible fortnight’ to allow employees to trial their ideal FW arrangements before making formal requests
  • Flexible working options highlighted on careers site for potential new candidates
  • Senior leader sponsors and role models
  • Advertising jobs as open to flexible working and making the right to request flexible working from day 1: the CIPD is calling for organisations and the government to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right for all employees through its #FlexFrom1st campaign

Promote trust and support for flexible working arrangements

Manager mind set, perception of fairness, and myths surrounding flexible working need to be tackled.  It’s important to shift your organisation’s culture and attitudes so that flexible working becomes the default; it’s just ‘the way people work’.

Employee support or networking systems

Creating employee support systems or networking sessions can also help. This can support Returners to build relationships with colleagues as quickly as possible and find co-workers who might be in a similar situation.

Tailored up-skill sessions

Returners need to be given the resources to get up to speed quickly. It’s therefore important to talk to Returners about where there might be gaps in their knowledge/ skill-sets and where they might need tailored upskill sessions.

Contracts/ Interim positions

Interim positions can be a useful strategy for Returners, who have been out of the workplace for longer, to transition back into the workplace. The roles provide a chance for more senior professionals to ‘test the waters’ and see how employment fits with their lifestyle and skillset following a break. It is also a great way for organisations to access the wealth of skills and experience offered by Returners throughout focused projects/ timescales.

Back to work support

The CIPD have developed a ‘Back to Work’ microsite of resources to help those returning to work after a period away from the workplace, including research, guides, podcasts and tools, as well as CIPD member resources such as employment law information, information on financial assistance and articles to help make the transition back into work easier and less stressful.

Reset: the festival of confidence and work: 5-14 July

The CIPD in partnership with Pregnant then Screwed is holding a Reset festival of confidence and work from the 5th-14th July for parents who want to rediscover their confidence and career in a post-pandemic world. The festival includes keynote talks, interviews, and workshops and all attendees will be offered the opportunity to access the CIPD’s Steps Ahead Mentoring programme for free one to one support for people’s journeys back to work.

Supportive return to the workplace conversations

It is even more challenging for many parent returners and workers in general that have been away from work, or potentially furloughed, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once the Government advice to work from home ends (now expected in July 2021 in England) employers must take an individualised approach to consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce, as well as monitoring ongoing government guidance. As part of its #Flexfrom1st campaign the CIPD is calling on employers to build upon the period of remote working and to adapt and learn to make hybrid working a success, rather than rushing people back to their workplace when the risks of COVID-19 subside.

If employees will be returning to the physical workplace, at least for part of the time, encourage and support every manager to have a one-to-one return conversations with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and wellbeing. Managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. Some staff may require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic.

HR should also make sure managers know about all the flexible working arrangements on offer so that they can have a well-informed discussion with parent returners. See CIPD line manager support materials on providing knowledge, clarity and guidance and building and sustaining relationships.

As furloughed workers return to the workplace, they may find it difficult to readjust especially if they have been away from work for some considerable time. Some form of ‘re-induction’ process should be considered – there is full guidance on this in the our guide to supporting returning furloughed workers.

Lisa’s 5 Tips for Return to Workplace Conversations

The transition back to the workplace for many will be littered with both psychological and physical barriers.  Handled the right way, Return to Workplace Conversations can create respected relationships, increase emotional intelligence, create new communication patterns, nourish well-being and ultimately yield greater success for everyone.  Here are 5 tips for supportive return to the workplace conversations:

  1. Step away from telling and ask open questions, those that start with a How? or a What? Then, listen to learn.
    1. What do you need to feel ready to return?
    2. How can the organisation support you to work at your best?
    3. What has supported your resilience across the last 18 months?
    4. How would you integrate returning to work into your life?
    5. What would be the ideal situation for you?
    6. What do you fear?
  2. Conversations should empower personal responsibility for action planning, engaging your employee in identifying their own personal barriers and pathways forward.
  3. Ensure the leader understands the psychological experience and journey, so they are truly empathetic.  Extended time away from the workplace for any reason can bring feelings of anxiety, rejection, isolation, imposter syndrome, low morale, resentment and disengagement. Mixed in with Covid-19 pandemic concerns and you can start to see why returning to the workplace for many may not be straight forward.  
  4. Be wary of relying on digital communication too much. Emails and texts often don’t give reassurance, they can instead provide another opportunity for the human brain to potentially invent a negative tone of voice and story.  Quick, regular, human 5 minute chats do wonders for relationship building.
  5. Understand the importance of ‘The First Day’ back.  The first day has a huge impact of their full transition back being successful or unsuccessful. Psychologically, the person returning is facing fears that day, they are taking brave first steps, it’s daunting. It’s a reality check against the picture and potential problems built in their mind.

Recent guides

Lisa Carver has recently released a comprehensive guide to return to workplace during COVID-19. The guide is called The Coaching Leader’s Guide to Supporting People Returning to the Workplace During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Coaching Leader's Guide | Carver Coaching I UK 

Resources from the Parent Returner programme

  • ParentWorks – How to successfully support parent returners back into the workplace
  • Case studies – Employers who are doing this well
  • What dad's say – Managing extended paternity leave report

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