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Coming Back from Parental Leave: How Employers Can Support Workers

Filed under: Benefits

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for family and medical reasons. These include having a baby, adopting or fostering a child, or if a worker or immediate family member becomes seriously ill. However, the FMLA applies only to employers with 50 or more workers and leave benefits vary substantially based on factors such as geographic location and length of time with employer. Eleven states have passed laws requiring most employers to offer some form of paid leave to new parents, but in the majority of states pay is not guaranteed during leave.

There is an enormous body of research that supports the importance of substantial leave time after the birth of a child. Benefits include lower rehospitalization rates for mother and baby, as well as better stress management. Additionally, the more time parents take off work to be with a new child can help nurture immediate bonds, promote shared caregiving responsibilities, and reduce the potential for anxiety and depression.

Note that paternity leave helps offset the burdens of childcare on the parent whose body experienced considerable changes over the last nine months, as well as recent severe trauma. In fact, many experts call the first few months after childbirth the “fourth trimester.” As the body recovers from childbirth and readjusts to its new role, some of the side effects experienced during postpartum may include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Increased stress
  • Severe mood swings
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Loss of coping mechanisms
  • Inability to think clearly and/or ask for help
  • Negative thoughts and feelings
  • Constipation and gas
  • Nausea
  • Wound infection
  • Blood loss
  • Blood clots
  • Adverse reactions to medication or anesthesia
  • Endometritis
  • Pelvic floor issues
  • Impact on urinary and bowel function

Clearly these are difficult issues to deal with while working. Thus, the longer someone who has given birth can take parental leave, the better they can recover in order to focus on the job.

Why Support Matters

One of the reasons a new parent may rush back to work is because the family cannot afford the loss of that income for very long. In the US, about 70 percent of women take some form of maternity leave, with an average leave time of 10 weeks, whether paid or unpaid.

 It is important to recognize that, whether they show it or not, many returning birth mothers are suffering from a lack of sleep, excess stress, and even physical pain or discomfort. They might say they are “fine,” but that could be to counter the stigma that working mothers are not as focused and productive on the job. Perhaps a better approach is to value the remarkable task of child-bearing and temper job expectations to take into account this enormous responsibility.

Return Policies and Practices

How well a worker is supported from the first notice of leave to transitioning back to the job can either positively or negatively impact productivity and retention. In fact, recent studies have found that 40 percent of new mothers consider quitting their job – not after childbirth – but during the return-to-work process.

This is why it’s important to have a written return-to-work policy that addresses all leave scenarios, including the addition of a new family member. The policy should be provided to workers before they begin parental leave so they know what to expect upon return. Be sure to include recommendations they can look forward to, such as a midday walk, in-office meditation tips, and posted “silent times” when they can expect to work distraction- and meeting-free.


Given the current environment, the option to work from home at least part time or during a transition phase before returning onsite is a huge advantage to parents with a new infant. It allows them to ease back into work while getting mother and child used to time spent away from each other. The first week or two back may consist of catching up on emails, voicemails and meeting invitations in order to triage initial responsibilities and set up a calendar and to-do list.

Note, too, that some new parents may find working onsite offers the most relief they get each day, so they may welcome the option. What’s important is to recognize that each worker will have different needs and preferences, so offering flexibility and the option to change workplace location and schedule over time, is one of the most supportive policies an employer can provide. However, it’s important to consider parity when offering return-from-leave benefits. For example, if a new mother is allowed to work from home permanently, you may be obligated to offer the same option to others who work similar roles. Also be sure to stipulate in your work-from-home policy that remote work is not to be a childcare solution for working parents.

When parents do return to the jobsite full time, consider making it easier for them to schedule the time they need (no 4:30pm meetings) to drop off children at daycare before and after work, take time off to care for sick children or attend doctor’s appointments, participate in children’s school events and afternoon activities, and respond to unexpected situations. 

Other practices offered to enhance your Return Support program may include:

  • Onsite healthcare facilities or on-demand events for routine medical services such as flu shots and COVID vaccines.
  • Promote your company’s well-being resources offered through health insurance or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • Encourage self-care by permitting workers to sign-up for scheduled onsite visits from a massage therapist, chiropractor, or acupuncturist.
  • Accommodate breastfeeding by turning an office or conference room into a nursing room where lactating moms can have the privacy and comfort they need. In California, some districts require employers to provide a dedicated lactation room.

Train Empathy

One of the hardest challenges for new mothers is facing the perception at work that they are somehow compromised, less productive, and less ambitious now that they’ve started a family. This perception should be addressed and eliminated from the corporate culture. According to a 2021 Maternity Leave Experience Report, one-third of mothers returning from maternity leave report being discriminated against in the workplace due to their new status.

This attitude often starts at the top, so leaders should be trained on exhibiting empathy and understanding for the plight of a new mother returning to work. This training and recognition of the unique challenges – including physical and emotional – that moms experience also should be conducted throughout the workforce to eliminate discrimination. One empathy training exercise could be to imagine working while experiencing just three or four of the aforementioned side effects and considering how you would be able to function under those circumstances.

Also recognize that women often place immense pressure on themselves to put everyone else’s needs first. They have may conflicting feelings of guilt, anxiety, and sadness about leaving a newborn in someone else’s care, on top of resuming their role of prioritizing coworker needs. This can lead to an intense and highly stressful mindset, but this facet of their work ethic is one of the things that make working moms such attentive employees.

The Latest Trend

Over the past year and a half, employers have stepped-up up their game in terms of higher wages and enhanced benefits in order to recruit workers during this highly competitive labor market. Now however, in the wake of higher inflation and the threat of a recession, new data reveals that some companies are retracting some of those enhanced benefits, including paring back the number of weeks offered for parental leave. In 2022 alone, the percentage of employers offering paid leave beyond legal requirements fell by more than a third (35 percent). According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employers that offered paid paternity leave dropped from 44 percent in 2021 to 27% this year.

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