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Parental leave: Tips on returning to work

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Young mother with baby on the phone


For first-time parents, heading off on parental leave requires a leap into uncharted territory. But many of us aren’t prepared for how difficult the return to work can be.  

Not only are parents transitioning into yet another stage of their work and home life (this time, without the benefit of a good night’s sleep behind them), but often, slotting straight back into work isn’t always smooth sailing.

The law states that an employee who’s been on unpaid parental leave is entitled to come back to the job they had before going on leave.  But despite this, parents wanting to return, but in a part-time capacity, can find that being in the office less often impacts on the types of projects they are given, while those leaving early to do child pickups have to sit down to negotiate this, and many other forms of flexibility. 

Then there’s the issue of bias, where – consciously or unconsciously – career-inhibiting discrimination unfolds after a return from parental leave.

Unfortunately, this latter problem is all too common. A 2014 report by the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in two women experienced discrimination in the workplace at some point.  More specifically, over a quarter (27%) of both fathers and partners surveyed for the report said they experienced discrimination related to parental leave and return to work, despite taking a short leave period. 

While none of the above feels particularly positive, and requires systemic change to eradicate, there is some good news: individuals can play an important role in smoothing their own path back to work after parental leave. 

Start to imagine–based on your experience, talents and skills–what your potential looks like. We call it a Professional Vision. We’ve found that when women go back to work and place that vision at the cornerstone of their conversations it mitigates the biases that often exist or are imposed on them by others.
Prue Gilbert

Prue Gilbert is the CEO and Founder of Grace Papers.  A former lawyer, Prue’s company develops programs that empower expectant and working parents to navigate family and career. 

Her first tip is to think hard about how you use parental leave time. Will it be a total break from work, or would you like to keep your hand in, on your terms? Prue points out that the same legislation that ensures our entitlement to parental leave (the Fair Work Act 2009) contains an underutilised component that supports employers and employees to “keep in touch” though the parental leave period. 

“You’re eligible to agree with your employer on up to ten (paid) keeping in touch days. Those might be for ongoing training, coming in to a conference or to consult with your manager on an important issue; we’ve seen those used quite broadly,” Prue says.

While some employees may prefer not to use this option, Prue says taking it up provides two benefits. 

First, it reminds employers that while you aren’t there in person, you are still their employee. Second, she says there’s strong evidence that women who access keeping in touch programs and other strategies while they are on parental leave are more “retainable” than those that don’t.1 (The latter is particularly evident if the leave covers an extended period of time.) 

Although parental leave is a busy time, especially for first time parents, Prue says it can also be useful to use the time away from work as an opportunity for reflection. How would your future career look if you took away all existing barriers? 

“Start to imagine - based on your experience, talents and skills - what your potential looks like.  We call it a Professional Vision. We’ve found that when women go back to work and place that vision at the cornerstone of their conversations it mitigates the biases that often exist or are imposed on them by others,” she says. 

Prue advises that only once your vision is clear should you begin a conversation with your employer around flexibility. 

“Once you start to present your value proposition to the organisation and remind them of your skills, talents and abilities, the negotiation becomes a lot easier, because they are reminded that they actually want you back,” Prue says.

“Whilst utopia says that you shouldn’t have to be the one that’s negotiating all of this, the reality is, for as long as one in two women experience some form of pregnancy-related discrimination, don’t leave it to chance. Use the tools you have access to and set yourself up to have the right kind of conversations,” she says.

Whatever you’ve put in place for your period of absence, when your return date approaches, employees do have some legal obligations. 

On a practical level, legislation requires you to notify employers no less than four weeks prior to returning.  If you want an extension, the same applies.  While employers are often more flexible than the law, under the legislation, you’re entitled to ask for one extension of maternity leave, up to 24 months in total time away. 

For those coming back on a part-time arrangement, it’s worth taking time to put in place a clear delegation strategy about what will happen on days you are not in the office.  

“What does that look like? How will you hand over your work? How will you make sure you’ve had the right conversations with the right people to ensure your views are represented at a meeting you can’t attend?” says Prue. 

She also advises getting clear on your values. What is negotiable for you, and what simply isn’t? Once you know that you’ll be better tasked to set professional boundaries.   

If your vision includes climbing the corporate ladder, Prue recommends finding a “sponsor” within the organisation: someone who can champion your career path, including in your absence. 

Unlike a mentor, a sponsor doesn’t have to be someone you share values with, or even like. Instead, it’s about something more pragmatic. 

“A sponsor will have a deep appreciation for your professional vision and where you’d like to go in your career, and they effectively use their chips to advocate on your behalf,” she says.

Whichever path you choose, Prue says to bear one thing in mind: go easy.

“Remember, this is a transition, we need to give people – and ourselves - a break.”