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How can employers support parents returning to work?

Supporting parents who are on, or returning from, maternity or paternity leave isn't just the right thing for employers to do - it also makes good business sense. Kate Ablett of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and cluster HR manager with Sainsbury's, right, looks at managing parental leave effectively for both parents and employers, for the Welsh Government's positive parenting campaign "Parenting. Give it time".

What can a returning parent reasonably expect from an employer and what might they need to ask for? Firstly, all employees who have worked somewhere for at least 26 weeks - whether they are parents and carers, or not - now have the legal right to request flexible working. As the name suggests, it's a way of working that is more flexible and may better suit the needs of someone with a young family. Your employer is legally bound to deal with the request in a "reasonable manner", including assessing the advantages and disadvantages, meeting with you to discuss the request and offering you the opportunity to appeal if the decision doesn't go as you'd like.

Different businesses, in my experience, have embraced flexible working in different ways. The key for employers is to talk about it with their employees and make sure that there is good, proactive communication surrounding maternity, paternity and adoption leave.

That also goes for planning a return-to-work scenario. When I was pregnant, I was anxious about returning from maternity leave before it even began, and I'm in a HR role. I worried about what I'd be returning to in those first few weeks and what I'd be expected to achieve. In my experience at Sainsbury's, for example, it helps both employers and employees if you can set out a clear plan before a new parent returns to work - perhaps before they go on leave, if feasible.

What are the most common things employers should bear in mind for returning parents? Employers sometimes assume a returning parent will know what's happened in the time they've been away and slip straight back into the old routine.

Even if your employee has kept largely abreast of the sector they are in, or are in touch with colleagues socially, there will be specific things that are likely to have changed while they were getting to know their new baby. It's also worth remembering that returning parents will often have unrealistically high expectations for themselves in those early days, too.

Try to counter some of that by considering a phased return. I was able to arrange a four-week, part-time reintroduction to work, before returning to my full-time role, and that definitely helped me ease my way back in. That's not a luxury everyone has and it may not suit every employer or employee, but it's certainly something I would recommend suggesting to an employer or a returning staff member.

While on maternity, paternity or adoption leave, employees are also allowed up to 10 "keeping-intouch days" (KITS) or 20 "shared-parental-in-touch days" (SPLITS), without ending their leave or pay. While some parents look forward to switching off from work completely, many others will be anxious about returning to work and those keeping-intouch days could help allay those fears. They don't have to be full days and you can find out more on the UK Government website. Employees can't insist on them, though, just as an employer can't force someone to take one, so it's something you'll need to agree in advance.

Finally, most employers do risk assessments when someone is pregnant - of the workplace and the demands of the role - but that doesn't often happen when someone returns after having a child. Again, that may be something employees or employers could consider suggesting - particularly if they have concerns about how aspects of a role may affect new family circumstances.

Are workplaces changing in ways that make it easier for parents to return to work? There is certainly greater awareness among employers of the importance of work-life balance and more focus on agile working. Moving away from doing unnecessary hours that put pressure on family commitments sometimes involves a change in culture, both on behalf of the employer and the employee.

At Sainsbury's, for example, we've introduced a female mentoring scheme. Having identified women in the business who would like to take on more responsibility but are concerned about balancing family and work commitments, we link them to senior people (male and female) who have done so successfully, in a bid to break down any preconceptions that you cannot occupy a senior role and enjoy flexible working arrangements. We are open to senior staff members enjoying part-time roles and job shares, and we have female role models who are balancing work and family life. There are certainly reasons to feel optimistic about the way things are going, though there's still a fair way to go.

What is 'Working Forward'? The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) researched the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. While most employers felt it was in their interests to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave, and agreed that statutory rights relating to pregnancy and maternity were reasonable and easy to implement, three in four mothers (77%) said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience either during pregnancy or maternity leave, or on their return from maternity leave. Around one in nine mothers (11%) said they felt forced to leave their job.

In response to this, the EHRC launched Working Forward, a national campaign to support pregnant women and new mothers. Backed by the likes of the CIPD, John Lewis, Ford and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), it aims to address the disconnect by bringing together a supportive business community that can drive cultural change and make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers.

Benefits of joining Working Forward, which is free and open to companies of all sizes, include conversation guides to help communication between managers and employees, help and support developing pregnancy and maternity policies, and exclusive training events.

This helps employers fulfil their pledge, which includes demonstrating leadership from the top down, ensuring confident employees, training and supporting line managers, and offering flexible working practices. Find out more here:
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 4, 2017
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