5 ways to support new parents returning to work (and why you should)
As new parents return to work, there’s a lot that a business can do to help them adjust, and there are benefits to employers, too, in doing so.

Competition for talent has elevated this year, and a business that’s family friendly and has flexible working arrangements is hugely appealing for employees.

Research for SEEK found 87% of people think employers should offer some level of support to employees returning from parental leave, but only 68% of employees received it.

There’s more to parent-friendly policies than simply reducing staff hours, though. We look at why supporting new parents is the smart thing for businesses to do, and how to make it happen.

What do staff value when returning to work?

Employees’ priorities are changing, and work-life balance has become more important than ever. That’s why offering flexibility and support is key to retaining staff.

The research shows that over half (66%) of employees felt overwhelmed about juggling work and being a parent. And 40% of employees felt anxious that they wouldn’t be able to do their job properly. If an organisation ignores the need to support parents or carers at this often overwhelming time, they risk losing staff.

The support most desired by returning parents include:

  1. Flexible working hours or days, including going part-time from full-time (50%).
  2. Being allowed to work from home (41%).
  3. A phased return to work, for example, starting with a reduce workload and/or hours and slowly returning to normal (40%).
  4. Flexibility around when they can take parental leave (29%).
  5. A private space to express milk and/or breastfeed (27%).

Why offer parental leave support?

“Supporting parents with their return to work is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do,” says Justine Alter, psychologist and co-director of Transitioning Well – an agency that specialises in supporting management and employees to navigate major transitions in their work lives.

“Put simply, if you don’t support parents, you will lose them,” she says.

“The pandemic, for all its downsides, was a bit of reset for working people. It made us examine our working lives, and many people aren't prepared to put up with a bad manager or inflexible working hours anymore. They'll resign and work for an organisation that does offer that.”

Work-life balance is a top driver for changing jobs, along with money and career progression. And Transitioning Well knows that many parents and carers consider leaving their jobs in the first year after returning from parental leave, as they navigate the challenges that come with combing their job with caring for children.

“Employees want to know that there's a culture of support for them. That could mean flexibility, it could mean clear pathways to promotion, or it could be something else entirely. It's going to be different for everyone. What remains the same is that need for a culture of support. And organisations that don't offer that, that don't support parents, won’t attract or retain the best talent.”

Practical ways of supporting employees

So, how can businesses put support into action? There are plenty of practical ways that businesses can help parents. Alter suggests these tips:

  1. Use parental leave coaching: if your budget permits, getting external advice on parental leave will help you navigate the practical and emotional elements of the transition. Even for employees who are keen to get back to work, leaving their child in childcare is often an emotional time.

    If you can’t use coaching, building consistent leadership is really important so employees don’t have to rely on “the boss lottery", Alter says.

    “You want people to feel comfortable that whoever their manager will be, that they will have a positive experience and be supported.”
  2. Put your policies into action: Often, managers and employees aren’t aware of the resources and support available to them, Alter says.

    “With the best intentions, lots of companies have great policies that just end up sitting on the shelf or the intranet. Make sure policies are kept up to date with new legislation and are well implemented and communicated.” Consider having a process in place that takes effect from the day a staff member advises that they need to take parental leave.
  3. Support both parents: Traditionally, businesses have supported the parent taking primary carer’s leave, but remember that all parents need support. Fathers are increasingly taking primary carer’s leave. 

    “Workplaces need to encourage both parents to take leave and support them with parental leave coaching, especially dads.”
  4. Offer support when things go wrong: Pregnancy and birth aren’t always smooth sailing and it’s important that workplaces have support set up to manage situations such as early delivery, miscarriages, still births and perinatal mental health. Being prepared allows for a business to respond more appropriately in these situations.

    “Opening those conversations with your people shows a true sense of care and consciousness, as opposed to just handing them the parental leave policy,” Alter says.
  5. Have facilities for breastfeeding mums: Long gone are the days of breastfeeding mums expressing in the lunchroom or toilets, says Alter. “By law, employers must make reasonable attempts to meet an employee’s breastfeeding needs.”

    It’s more than just the legalities, though. “When employers support their workers to breastfeed, the benefits include increased staff retention, reduced costs, improved staff satisfaction and morale, and reduced sick leave and absenteeism.”

    Women who need to breastfeed or express at work need some practical things such as a clean private area with a comfortable chair, a fridge, wash basin, and enough breaks to express at work. “If people do need to express at work, making sure that you're respectful of that, and that they feel comfortable that they can do that.”

    If you need advice on whether your breastfeeding facilities are up to scratch, you can also contact the Ministry of Health which provides advice for organisations on creating breastfeeding-friendly workplaces.

How to manage your workforce capacity

Not every business can easily manage reduced employee hours, and providing flexibility can be challenging, especially for small businesses.

If an employee wishes to reduce their hours or capacity, senior HR consultant Helen Stevenson suggests taking a wider view of the workforce, such as:

  • Organising job share arrangements.
  • Allowing staff to swap days or hours to accommodate each other.
  • Organising temp or contract employees to assist in a period requiring flexibility for a parent returning to work.

Encouraging all parents to take the parental leave they need and providing practical support when they return is good for your employees and your business. Having clear policies, seeking external advice and being clear about the support you can provide all play an important role.

Stevenson says. “A business is much more likely to thrive when its employees are happy and feel satisfied in their role – their job is no longer just any job, it becomes something they really care about.”

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published March 2024.