Adding a new member to the family is stressful and demanding. Research indicates that it’s doing a number on the labor force, too. A 2017 report by Ovia Health found that 34% of women did not return to their job after having a child. Research from New York University published in 2019 found that nearly half of new mothers and one-quarter of new fathers leave full-time STEM jobs after having children.
With companies doing their best to retain every bit of talent possible in a tight labor market, helping new parents be engaged enough to want to come back to work and then ease back into the workplace becomes more important than ever.
“Companies should realize that this is a big change, obviously, in the lives of mothers and fathers,” says Andrew Flowers, an economist with Indeed Hiring Lab, a team of economists and researchers at job website Indeed who study the labor market. There are a few things they need and want as they go back to work:
Generous parental leave
Indeed’s research found that new mothers said they needed an average of 22 weeks of maternity leave, but received an average of just 10 weeks. New fathers were able to take an average of seven weeks of leave, but felt they needed 10. In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires that employees of companies with more than 50 employees provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children. The U.S. is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not mandate paid parental leave.
“You’re more likely to keep someone who believes that their employer values them. And if their employer values them as whole people, which includes their parental status, that person is going to likely feel more positively about their workplace,” says Georgene Huang, CEO and cofounder of Fairygodboss, a marketplace that matches women with employers who care about gender equality.
Flexible work times and structured re-entry
Another interesting finding from the Indeed study was that, on average, working mothers work 15 weeks before their babies start sleeping through the night—roughly 105 sleep-disrupted nights. Fathers work an average of 16 sleepless weeks before their new additions clock a full night’s shut-eye. New morning routines are often difficult to manage, especially at first. Eighty-four percent of first-time mothers and 80% of first-time fathers said they would benefit from having more flexible morning start times.
Being aware of those additional challenges during the first weeks back to work and anticipating that new parents may be tired and stressed can help, Flowers says. Employees are catching up on what’s happened since they’ve been out and may need some time to adjust to their “new normal.”
At the same time, don’t give them too much space. Barbara Palmer, founder of Broad Perspective Consulting’s Your 4th Trimester, a coaching program for new parents, says that parents returning to work may feel disconnected. After preparing for leave, then being on leave—sometimes, for several months—if they return and feel like fish out of water, they may leave.
“I come back and the company either doesn’t engage with me, transition me well, or they’re so afraid of giving me work and breaking me that they actually step back and they don’t give me enough work. And I sit there for two months going, Why am I here?” says the founder of the business. Over the course of that time, the company has lost months of productivity, and the employee may end up deciding to change jobs or leave the workforce entirely.
Palmer recommends frequent communication with the employee to gauge whether they’re having any issues with overwork, lack of meaningful work, or other areas. Be ready to adapt to the employee’s needs and capabilities for the best outcomes.
Family-friendly policies and perks
Foresite Commercial Real Estate has had a recent baby boom. Founded in 2014, the business has grown to 18 team members, who have seven (soon to be eight) babies. CEO and Founder Bethany Babcock has adopted a number of family-friendly policies to help keep her team members after they had children. Most positions can be done remotely and team members bring babies and young children into the office when they need to do so.
“For those with older kids, our conference room is often full of pizza parties and games for the school-aged kids out for the summer,” she says. She also lets some employees transition to hourly pay status and work part-time until they are ready to return full-time. Welcoming children in the office helps employees manage the high cost of daycare. Some larger companies are even investing in onsite day care.
Talk to employees and determine what their needs are. For example, breastfeeding mothers will need a place to nurse or pump breast milk. Providing a comfortable, attractive place to do so is appreciated. For women who travel, access to breast milk shipping services can also ease some of the challenges of pumping on the road.
By working closely with new parents to meet their needs during a stressful period in their lives, you can help them be more successful and happier, while potentially boosting retention—and attracting new employees, too, Huang says.