What should a return-to-work strategy for parents and carers include?

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Need to know:

  • Initiatives that facilitate peer-to-peer support, such as buddying, can be instrumental in helping parents manage the transition to working carer in light of their organisation’s policies and resources.
  • Line managers should be provided with training to ensure they have effective conversations with employees undertaking maternity, paternity or shared parental leave.
  • Flexible working initiatives, for example a phased return-to-work, can help new parents transition back into the workplace while managing their caring commitments.

In August 2017, the government launched a call for evidence to establish what support was available for individuals returning to work after taking a career break to care for children and family members. The call for evidence, which closed on 23 October 2017, forms part of the government’s pledge to help individuals back into the workplace after taking time out, and includes a £5 million fund for return-to-work programmes.

A successful return to work strategy can help to retain talent, minimise recruitment costs, enhance an organisation’s reputation and boost employee engagement. So what benefits and policies should employers consider including within this?

Working practices

A return-to-work strategy can be beneficial for new parents rejoining the workforce after taking maternity, paternity, adoption or shared parental leave, as well as be used to help individuals looking to re-enter the workplace after a longer career break, for example where employees have taken time away from work to care for elderly relatives.

The foundation of an employer’s return-to-work strategy should rest on HR policies and practical procedures, says Rachel Vecht, director at educational consultant Educating Matters. This could include a focus on flexibility, for example flexible working hours or a phased return-to-work process, says Kirstie Axtens, head of employer services at Working Families. This may mean new parents work shorter hours when they first return, or phase their workload back to them rather than them taking on their full roster of duties as soon as they return.

“Whether somebody starts back on their full range of all their [duties] or whether their own work is phased back to them, the strategy is [to] ensure line managers have the conversations [with employees] and treat every case as an individual,” says Axtens.

If a returning parent has requested to re-enter the workplace on a part-time basis, employers should check the employee’s job description. This is to ensure that if staff go part-time, they are not expected to complete their previous full-time role but in less time and for a lower salary.

Workplace support

Educational seminars and webinars and group or one-to-one coaching sessions can also be implemented to help support employees in becoming a working parent. Coaching sessions solely for fathers can also act as a support mechanism to encourage the take-up of shared parental leave.

Jennifer Liston-Smith, director, head of coaching and consultancy at My Family Care, says: “Anything that [employers] can do to help people network and exchange experiences is hugely helpful because it’s very normalising and very reassuring for people to know that they’re not the only one that might be having a bit of a challenge with the daily juggle.”

This could be implemented through internal mentors or buddies, for example, where employees preparing for parental leave are paired with peers or senior leaders who have been through the same transition, and therefore have an understanding of how they can make use of the organisation’s resources. “It’s quite powerful to meet somebody in [the] organisation and just be able to get their warts-and-all story,” says Liston-Smith.

Employee networks can enable informal mentoring or buddying, however they can also have a consultative role to act as the employee voice when senior leaders are looking to implement policies and initiatives to help support parents in the business. Working Families’ Axtens says: “On the one hand, [employee networks] play a support role, but equally they have a more strategic role in that they will have a consultative role when the organisation is looking at its policies and practices. Those networks can represent voices of parents.”

Benefits such as emergency back-up care and breastfeeding facilities can also aid parents re-entering the workforce. For example, global pharmaceutical organisation Johnson and Johnson offers temperature controlled breast milk delivery for nursing mothers travelling for business purposes as part of its global family-friendly benefits package.

The importance of line management

Line managers also play a vital role in ensuring the success of a return-to-work strategy. “It’s the relationship with the line manager that has the biggest impact on the success of someone’s return to work,” explains Axtens. “Employers need to concentrate effort [in] making sure their managers feel confident to support [parents] through leave and back to work, so [they] can really perform at [their] best. It’s that culture [of] trust, honesty and openness that is of huge value.”

This support includes providing line managers with training and resources to ensure they can have effective and timely conversations with team members before, during and after their period of parental leave. Caroline Gatrell, professor of organisation studies at the University of Liverpool, says: “Quite often there’ll be a gap between the organisational policy and line managers even knowing what the entitlements are. It’s really important that somebody’s line manger is up to speed with what [it is] that the organisation’s offering.”

Line managers should also conduct regular check-in meetings on an employee’s return to confirm whether agreed working arrangements are still suitable. Managers should also be aware of the symptoms of conditions such as stress, sleep deprivation and post-natal depression, which can affect some mothers.

Addressing the financial impacts

One tool that has been used to encourage new parents back into the workplace is the use of return-to-work bonuses, where employees coming back from leave are awarded a bonus if they remain with the organisation for a set period after returning from their parental leave.

Providers, such as My Family Care, have anecdotally noticed that return-to-work bonuses have dwindled in recent years. Working Families has noted that some of its employer members have cited that return-to-work bonuses are ineffective at retaining returning parents because the incentive does not align with the organisation’s reasons behind wanting parents to return to the workforce.

Some employers are repurposing funds previously used for the return-to-work bonuses to enhance shared parental leave pay or to pay for coaching opportunities instead. “Some employers phased out that return-to-work bonus, but put the pot of money into shared parental leave pay. [Employers have] repurposed the money and to me, that makes much more sense to actually use the money that way,” says Axtens.

Employers can further help parents financially by helping mitigate childcare costs. This can be achieved by having an on-site, subsidised crèche and by continuing to offer childcare vouchers until the scheme is closed to new members from April 2018, and replaced by the government’s tax-free childcare initiative, which was rolled out in April 2017.

Employee communications

Communications showcasing case studies are a useful tool to highlight the benefits and resources employees have access to. Other communication channels that could do this include social media platforms, such as Yammer, blog posts, written communications via post and email newsletters can help inform employees of policies and resources about being a working parent, while standalone websites, portals or apps allow employees on leave to access any information they need while away from the workplace.

Line managers should ensure they confirm a communications plan with staff before they go on leave. “Make sure that everybody’s clear before the [employee] goes on leave about how [the employer is] going to communicate, when [it is] going to communicate, what sort of thing [it is] going to communicate, so there’s that clarity,” says Axtens.

Although there are many physical and practical considerations employers need to shoulder when supporting employees’ return to work, it is also important that employers embrace a culture of flexibility to avoid making biased decisions or assumptions about what a returning employee will want or need. As Axtens concludes: “It’s really important to treat everybody as individuals.”

Shared from Employee Benefits