Parenthood is in the details. It’s the number of ounces per feeding, the hours slept through the night, the minutes ticking away on your parental leave as you sleeplessly navigate a swell of daily issues. It’s a constant, demanding and exhausting job.
But it’s not our only job. No one said reentering the workforce after parental leave is easy. But if you’re like me, you probably felt like parenthood was going to be a switch you could flip on and off. And when we realize it’s not, we’re suddenly at a crossroads in our career. We were prepared for bumps along the road, but not for the premium that society places on perfection at home and at work.
A recent study found that roughly half of new parents—both men and women—take a job for less money at a family-friendly employer upon reentering the workforce. Considering the boom in millenials having children, organizations need to provide employees with benefits that will make their transition from home to work successful. Not just for parents, but for companies’ growth and retention goals.
Pressure for perfection
It’s an unavoidable truth that people can’t be perfect. But new parents jumping back into the workforce can lose sight of that. One study reported that a quarter of working moms buckle under the pressure of “wanting it all” and cry once a week. The needs and desires of family become ingrained in every junction of our day. We’re a parent when we’re at our desk, in a meeting, on a call—it’s not that it’s difficult to switch off, it’s that we can’t.
Returning after maternity leave didn’t feel like coming back to my old job. It felt like starting a new one. Everything from the company’s internal comms to my team structure had changed while I was away. We’d even acquired a new company. At the time, there hadn’t been many pregnant employees before me, but I knew I couldn’t have been the only parent employee that felt this overwhelmed.
The need for allies
Returning to work as a new parent isn’t a journey to navigate in a silo. It affects the team and impacts one’s own ability to work. When trying to turn nice-to-have plans into real, addressed needs, allies make the difference.
I was fortunate to have a supportive manager. While sorting through the work I missed on leave, he and the team were patient, checking in and never questioning the unmarked blocks of time on my calendar (reserved for pumping). But there wasn’t a clear structure in place for re-onboarding employees post-parental leave. I started to make up my own onboarding as I went and eventually connected with another parent at Sprout, a mom of two. Building this relationship is what helped me the most while getting re-acclimated to the workplace.
I stumbled upon this connection, but if companies proactively give new parents the support they need to be successful, they can ensure parents feel more at ease during this time of peak stress. The relationship I mentioned earlier showed me how important allies can be. It’s also what highlighted the need for a built in system.
Although my team at the time was understanding, the guys struggled to empathize with the nuances of being a new mom and what it took for me to adapt to these changes at work. When personal and private matters arose, they weren’t sure what to say or how to help. After week one, most had stopped checking in. I knew this could be better.
Employees know they aren’t alone as parents, but the reality is that the personal nuances of what we’re balancing between home and work can feel isolating. A team can do its best to understand, but having others in the same boat to talk to is the kind of support that makes a difference.
A warm re-welcoming
Consider new hire onboarding: New hires are eased into things. They’re formally welcomed and there’s a clear plan for their journey ahead. Sometimes, it can take over a month to fully onboard new employees. With parents being gone for as long as they are—and the mental shift that occurs when we switch gears from just working to working and raising a family—a similar system is needed.
For Sprout’s 2017 Hack Day project, I pitched the idea of re-onboarding new parents at work. I started with a simple question: What do parents need when they come back to work? With several coworkers, we developed a welcome plan including: a lunch to catch parents up with their teams, a frame for new family photos and a non-manager mentor to regularly check in.
We took our Hack Day plan to Maureen Calabrese, our Chief People Officer. We’d never broached this subject with the People team before, so their receptiveness to launching our plan felt like a triumph. And it’s support like that—from people like my boss, our CPO—that lift initiatives like this off the ground.
What started as a one-day project is now a business resource group, figuring out larger needs to tackle aside from welcome back lunches. The group’s next step is to organize parent cohorts and manager training: How do we educate managers to empower and support parents? How do we ensure parents aren’t overwhelmed from day one and have the resources they need beyond their first week back?
This work doesn’t stop at Sprout. With our plans as a starting point, I am now reaching out to my network to see who else can benefit from these resources. Through others, we can all continue to improve on the plans our organizations put in place to help new parents.
A group like this is more than a resource—it’s a lifeline and a safe space at work for tough conversations. On top of workload, working parents deal with colicky kids, miscarriages, infertility—topics most wouldn’t bring up with their team. But a new parent cohort, for example, is where people can comfortably exchange ideas and learn ways to strike real work-life balance.
When new parents have access to similar tools, resources and support that new employees receive in their first weeks on the job, they are more focused and engaged. And companies benefit from high retention rates and happy employees.
Why companies should care
Are any companies doing this well?
Yes, there are workplaces that have thoughtfully and successfully welcomed parents back into the workforce. The problem is too few do it. The world isn’t going to stop procreating, so companies need to get smart about reacclimating new parents to their new world.
Take a page from big four accounting firm, PwC. They calculated that it costs the company about $120,000 for every employee that chooses not to return to work after welcoming a new child. Among other family benefits, the company initiated a Mentor Moms program, pairing new mothers with other working moms within the company. It gave them someone to confide in about the unique difficulties of navigating both a new family and a practically unrecognizable work life.
Not every step toward retention will be a fully developed return-to-work plan. Some companies have come to support working parents with benefits like childcare programs. Major names like Netflix and Microsoft provide generous paid leave policies and HP offers free convenience services to assist with errands. It’s a benefit that allows parents to avoid missing work when their kids were sick or their regular childcare was unavailable. Companies across the country are implementing programs like this and other inclusive benefits to better retain employees and mitigate the stress that new parents experience upon resuming their jobs.
Last year, Sprout had 30 new parents, a number that has tripled year over year. Chances are, your workforce is maturing too. It only makes sense to lay the groundwork to support them before you end up with a baby boom you’re not equipped to handle.
Prioritizing new parents in your workplace is a form of equity. Any organization that commits to that value should dedicate resources to bringing parents up to speed when rejoining the workforce.
I didn’t need to be on the People team to have a say in this matter. I didn’t go to HR and say, “Hey, you should think about new parent onboarding.” I saw a gap in what my company had to offer new parent employees and did my best to fill it. It wasn’t just for me or other new parents, it was to benefit the organization as a whole.
If you want your business to be more human, you have to invest in your humans. And there’s nothing more human than acknowledging that raising one and making strides in your career is a job in itself.
As it turns out, it takes a village to raise a kid…and their parent.