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How to plan a maternity leave that is less stressful for everyone

After feeling anxious during her first leave, Jacquie Liddell was determined to do things differently the second time around. She shares tips for how employers can help parents prepare

How to plan a maternity leave that is less stressful for everyone
[Photo: ChamilleWhite/iStock]

Having a child is one of life’s greatest joys. However, for parents who work—and for our employers and coworkers—it can also be a major source of stress. After all, when we take time off to care for our newborns, our work doesn’t take time off with us. It’s natural to still worry about our projects, our teams, and our clients and to wonder how it will all get done when we are away.

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The first time I took maternity leave, I experienced all of that stress. I didn’t know what to expect and how I would manage returning to work after having a child. I was stressed about what I was missing in the office and worried that the contract recruiter taking my place wasn’t going to get up to speed with my role quickly enough.

My second maternity leave was significantly less stressful, largely due to the experience I gained from my first leave and the pre-planning I did prior to going out on leave. It was determined that two of my coworkers had the bandwidth to cover my role while I was away, so we put together a very specific escalation plan, and I felt comfortable leaving knowing I had someone to support my clients and team.  

Now that I have experienced two entirely different leaves, and have managed direct reports who have taken leave, here are some tips employers can use to help new parents—as well as their teams, partners, and clients—feel valued, balanced, and at ease. 

Start planning in advance

Planning for maternity cover should begin as far in advance as possible, ideally as soon as an employer finds out that an employee is expecting. Planning months ahead allows enough time to think things through in an organized way and to engage and train up the individuals who will take over your employee’s responsibilities. Scurrying at the last minute can create panic, throws a massive “wrap-up” workload on your team, and leaves little time for new resources to ask questions and get the insights they need to perform well.  

Employers need to discuss the everyday duties and expectations of the employee who will be leaving so that they can find an adequate replacement. Leaders also need to create a thorough escalation plan to use if something goes wrong while the new parent is out, including who to contact—and how—in the event of an emergency.

Decide what type of talent to use

The type of talent employed or deployed to cover for an employee on leave is more important than it may seem. Depending on the position, available skills, and productivity expectations, you may opt to hire a temporary full-time employee, have one or more existing workers pick up certain tasks, or contract a gig worker.

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Gig workers are a great option since they are accustomed to short-term roles and can be paid by the day, hour, week, or project. They are also generally very versatile, and their skill sets run the gamut from generalists to specialists. You can also start engaging these individuals, as needed, even before your employee’s leave begins.

Using a company’s existing staff to take on certain tasks of the parent on leave is another good choice. Existing employees have the benefit of being familiar with the company and staff, and covering for their colleague also gives them a chance to learn new skills that can help them grow. Just be careful not to overload your team, and consider where additional support—such as contractors and freelancers—may be needed to fill in gaps.

Temporary talent is another alternative and, if a job is straightforward and doesn’t require extensive onboarding, this model can be a very effective solution.

Integrate the talent early on

It is important to integrate the incoming employee into the team before the expecting employee leaves. Inviting the gig worker to start part-time, or having an existing employee shadow his or her colleague for a week or two, helps both the new employee and the existing staff to connect and feel comfortable. It also gives the covering employee time to ask questions and get hands-on practice.

Developing a solid plan to cover my responsibilities in advance was one of the best things my employer could have done for me. This planning helped my team stay productive while I was away, reduced the stress and burden I felt leaving my responsibilities for several months, and helped me focus on my family during a critical time. All employers should consider doing the same to help ensure that new parents feel valued.


Jacquie Liddell is an area vice president with Randstad Sourceright.

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