These are the real challenges of returning to work after parental leave

As an employment lawyer I’ve heard countless stories from both employers and employees about how hard it is to return to work post parental leave.

However, it wasn’t until I experienced maternity leave myself that I finally got a better understanding about why this process is just so difficult.

So what can we do? It starts with knowing what some of the real challenges are, and then being aware of them as employers, colleagues and women and men taking parental leave.

The real challenges

Vulnerability. When someone takes leave from a business, in my case a period of three months, it creates vulnerability. Such vulnerability affects the person exiting and also the people staying and holding the fort.

Change. No one likes change, it’s as simple and as complex as that.

Sensitivity. The taking of parental leave is still, in our society, a bit of a taboo topic. Why else would we need laws in place to protect individuals who are taking such leave? In my own case, I was sensitive (damn you hormones) during my whole pregnancy, let alone upon the return to work. I was sensitive about my pending leave, my clients, the team, whether I’d miss out on leadership opportunities on my return.

Sleep deprivation. I haven’t yet met one parent who has returned to work feeling fully rested. Indeed when I returned at four months in, I don’t think I’d had more than three hours sleep in a row since my baby was born. And we all know how much sleep deprivation can mess with our brains. Just rocking up to work can sometimes feel like a victory. Last week there was one day that I turned up un-showered. And I was still proud to have made it into the office.

Priorities. The person I was before I left for parental leave was not the person that returned to work. I was changed. My priorities had changed. My ability to work late, stay overnight for conferences or hang around for Friday night drinks had changed. I wanted to do a good job and then get the hell home as soon as I’d finished my work. My prioritised had shifted.

Expectations. I hadn’t realised all of the above. My expectation was that I’d walk straight back into work, resume my seat and carry on. I hadn’t expected so much to have changed within the business and within myself in only three months.

So what are the solutions? Here’s what I’ve learnt: 

• Expect the unexpected

• Know your legal rights (both employees and employers)

• Keep an open mind and always look for options and flexibility in your planning

• Allow a slow transition if the business can handle it

• Make regular check ins with the team during the transition period

• Keep your HR manager involved in the process, they’ve seen it all before and most likely have a wealth of knowledge to share with you and the team to help

• Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability, maintain professionalism but communicate your fears and concerns as it gives both parties an opportunity to discuss future plans

• If you’re female, seek out other women who have returned to work in a similar capacity as you, they’ll have lots of great tips

• If you’re male, then seek out other men that have taken parental leave, but also be brave and proud about communicating your plans to the workplace. Times are a’changing but you’re still a minority and we all need to hear more from you!

• If you’re a boss, don’t expect smooth sailing. Recognise that it will be a transition period but one that will be well worth it if you can set up the right framework to enable flexible working arrangements for multiple team members

• The next time a colleague of yours turns up to work after being kept up all night by their child, immediately offer a coffee. Making it into the office it sometimes an achievement in itself!

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.