Striking the balance: How to support parents as they go back to work

Working with a baby is hard, even without throwing a pandemic into the mix. Maria Karanika-Murray and Cary Cooper give their tips to make the adjustment easier

Returning to work after having a baby is highly taxing under normal circumstances, but it’s especially tough now. Returning parents currently face a triple whammy of readjusting to work, sorting out childcare and coping with pandemic-related restrictions that weren’t there when they went on leave.

It’s a lot of pressure. For many at work, the pandemic has meant shifting to home working while at the same time caring for children because nurseries and schools are shut. The pandemic may have also exacerbated existing inequalities in families around the division of labour, gender roles and unpaid care work. For some, closed offices will have severed access to colleagues and opportunities too.

How, then, can we help new parents returning to work for the first time in these unusually difficult circumstances? In this article, we offer five bits of advice – drawn from our recent book that brings together a number of experts on issues surrounding parental return-to-work – to help both new parents and their managers handle the transition back into work during the pandemic.

1. Review changing needs and demands

A good fit between our needs and job requirements is important for wellbeing, job satisfaction and productivity. Both needs and job requirements can change over time and so, too, can the fit between them.

Taking time to do a periodic review in response to major life changes – such as parenthood and the pandemic – is important. This should lead to a discussion between employee and line manager to adjust work to fit the circumstances, ensure that any resources needed are available, and maintain a good work-life balance and productivity.

2. Plan ahead

Organise both parental leave and the return to work in advance.

It may sound like common sense, but not many parents have an open discussion with their managers or employers ahead of time to plan their leave and handover tasks or to adjust their work ahead of a gradual or a full return. The pandemic restrictions make such careful planning essential, as access to manager or colleague support is not as immediate.

Enforced working from home also means the physical and temporal boundaries between work and home are nonexistent. This may necessitate redesigning how and when the job is done, in order to organise working hours, breaks and family time in a way that they fit together. Balancing work and family demands may also require being more structured with home-based work.

3. Beware of stereotypes

Stereotypes of mothers (including pregnant women) tend to be negative and can contribute to the “motherhood wage penalty” – the pay gap between working mothers and similar women without dependent children. Stereotypes of fathers, on the other hand, can be positive and contribute to a “fatherhood bonus”.

A good first step for employers would be to let staff tailor how they get their work done according to their needs

The loss of social time and face-to-face contact during both parental leave and the pandemic may exacerbate stereotypes and their negative impacts on performance. There’s a risk that this then could lead to differential treatment and indirect discrimination.

4. Identify skills relevant to both parenting and work

Parenthood is a period of intensive informal training when important transferable skills are developed. These include person-related skills (negotiation, perspective-taking), tangible skills (work scheduling, managing multiple demands) and personal resources (such as “psychological capital” – hope, self-efficacy, optimism and resilience).

5. Make work-life balance a shared responsibility

A workplace that promotes good work-life balance can have tremendous benefits for the health, wellbeing and performance of the whole workforce. Good work-life balance signals that an organisation cares for its people.

From Independent