The Return to Work After Parental Leave

Depending on how generous parental leave is at your company, the employee who used it may have been away from work for at least several weeks or months. This employee’s life has changed dramatically while being away. Coming back to work, in most cases, is going to be emotionally and mentally challenging for the returning employee. But there are lots of different things that can be done to facilitate a smoother transition back into company life for any employee returning to work after parental leave.


A Sympathetic Approach to Those Returning from Parental Leave

Anyone who has had to navigate the return to work after parental leave already knows how difficult a transition it can be. If you’re tasked with HR functions and duties in your company and have not experienced this transition, it can be difficult to understand what those returning from parental leave are going through. 


You’ve probably heard it said that becoming a parent changes everything. Well, it’s true. Nothing feels the same. Your priorities shift dramatically. You form an instant and profound bond with your child. The depth of sheer love you feel for this new addition to your family is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. This is all in and of itself both wonderful and overwhelming. And then you have to go back to work? You’re going to just walk away from your child for hours and hours of each weekday? It literally defies everything you feel as a new parent. And yet the realities of modern life demand it if you can’t afford to be a stay-at-home parent. This is why reentry can also include a surprising amount of guilt. On top of all this you can layer in a general lack of sleep that typically accompanies having a new child, which further heightens all the emotions. What I’ve described here doesn’t even come close to representing the full reality of an employee on parental leave who is coming back to work. But it hopefully gives you at least a glimpse into what they are probably experiencing.


The best approach to take from an HR perspective is a sympathetic one if an empathetic understanding is beyond your reach because you haven’t experienced this particular kind of transition yourself. And yes, there will have to be some limits on just how understanding you can be within the confines of a company that needs each of its employees to perform to the best of their abilities for the sake of company success. Reasonable compassion is another way to think of it.


Easing Reentry After Parental Leave

Below are some helpful ideas and tips to share with an employee who is returning to work after parental leave:


  • Encourage returning employees to be gentle with themselves. They’re feeling all kinds of overwhelming emotions. Remind them that this wave of emotions is just that – the wave will crest and then it will recede. The way they’re feeling as they’re transitioning back to work is not the way they will continue feeling. Let them know that you understand they’re going through an emotional transition and are there to support them in their reentry.
  • Scheduling considerations. If there is a degree of flexibility that can be allowed, it might be a good idea to ease the returning employee back into working life somewhat gradually. When they first come back, maybe they only work the equivalent of two full days per week. After a couple or few weeks of that, up it to three and another couple of weeks later up it to full time. The returning employee will see how they have to make the most of those part-time hours to really get things done and they will be more productive as a result of this welcome period of flexibility.
  • Family logistics. When you’re in touch with the employee about their return, encourage them to figure out their new family logistics well ahead of their reentry. What you want to avoid is having their first day back also be the first time they’re dropping their child off at daycare or leaving them with a nanny or sitter. That’s an invitation to disaster. They need to experience what this new set of morning routines will be like so they’re not surprised when it needs to happen for real. These can even be “dry runs” just to get a feel for how it’s going to happen. They can even make the full commute to work and then just turn around and go back.
  • Meeting with their boss. Make sure at some point (but not the first day) soon after returning the work that employee has a one-on-one with their direct boss to just talk about the realities of their new live as it relates to their job. The returning employee should acknowledge that they may be a little “all over the place” emotionally but that they’re fully committed to their job and the company. Being proactive in this way, including what special projects or work trips they’re up for will help. 
  • Communicating with colleagues. Also encourage the returning employee to be open about their schedule and expectations with colleagues. If not, those colleagues will make their own assumptions about your commitment. They should make sure everyone knows their hours and when you need to leave on a regular basis so people know not to expect them to respond to something in the last few minutes of their day. And as things change with their schedule over time, continue to keep colleagues informed.
  • Be supportive. In line with taking a sympathetic approach to employees returning from parental leave, it’s a good idea to be generally supportive. And encourage the employee to seek out sources of support on their own as well, such as a parents group or online network of new parents. If your company has resources available to new parents, make sure the employee knows about them.


Make no mistake, any employee returning from parental leave is undergoing a huge shift emotionally and in their priorities as well. Their lives will necessarily be different, and that includes their working life as well. If you want to retain these valuable employees, take a sympathetic approach and be as flexible as possible while still being firm about basic expectations regarding performance. Following the tips and strategies outline above will go a long way towards ensuring it all works out well for the employee and the company.

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