Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, and Stacy Moore, Chartered Educational Psychologist and Director of Inner Circles Educational Psychology, explore why inclusion for parents and changing the narrative at work are so important for business and how to do precisely these things.
“Becoming a parent is a huge life change which can cause cognitive dissonance, increased vulnerability, exhaustion, changes in priorities, and therefore there is a need for additional support. Being part of a workplace which allows you to authentically experience each part of your identity, including that of being a mother or father is paramount. Being a parent is no small feat and is a huge part of the lives of so many but can also have an impact at different times on mental health and emotional wellbeing. Employers need to respond supportively in a way that empowers the individual and enables them to do their job just as well as pre-parenthood; the key to which is usually offering support and flexibility.
“The overall workplace cultural message needs to maintain that becoming a parent is something that happens as part of life and should not be viewed as a hinderance to business. Employers not only have a duty of care to their employees including those on maternity / paternity leave, but they should want to be fully inclusive because it is good for the individual, the team and ultimately for business. This message needs to be reinforced from the top down and understood organisation-wide. The team involved also need clear communication and to not be left to soak up the work of the colleague who is going on leave which leads to resentment and burnout.”
“Clearly there are lots of facts we should look at when considering the issue of inclusion for parents. Some employees may be more vulnerable in pregnancy and have increased parenthood risks than others. For instance, black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. Some groups are also more susceptible to mental ill-health due to pregnancy and other groups are often marginalised for having a baby, such as the trans community. Pregnancy is also not the only route to parenthood.
“If we particularly focus in on women; women constitute nearly 50% of the workforce in the UK. Women and transgender men can become pregnant. Suicide is the most common cause of death in mothers with children under 1 year old in the UK. An Equalities Commission found 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs each year in Britain and only a few of those women took their employers to tribunal. There is clearly much work still to be done.”
HOW CAN ORGANISATIONS CREATE A MORE EMPOWERING, INCLUSIVE ENVIRONMENT FOR PARENTS?
- Change the narrative. “Pregnant employees face a wide range of unhelpful and competing narratives such as they need to be ‘a superwoman who should be able to do it all’. Managers may give their own accounts of previous employees who “found it easy to come back from maternity leave early, so why can’t you”? 59% agree that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant and 46% of employers agree it is reasonable to ask a woman if they have young children during the recruitment process. Clearly much of the narrative is aimed at mothers and it is a barrier to inclusion and diversity and is wholly prejudiced, quite apart from being against the law. Naming this behaviour and openly discussing it within the workplace helps create awareness around it.
- Make that cultural shift. Move away from a finger pointing and blame culture that sees pregnancies as a hinderance to the remaining team. 51% of employers agree that there is sometimes resentment amongst employees towards women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. Model respectful and transparent conversations about changes that may take place in the workplace. Reinforce this message from the top down.
- Support the team through this change. Anticipate that a member going on maternity or paternity leave will create a dynamic shift and name it rather than ignore it. Don’t expect the rest of the team to just fill in the gap. Change the narrative to one that understands these periods as opportunities for the whole team to become more agile and grow.
- Implement systems which support the transitions during pregnancy and back to the workplace. Discuss how you will stay in touch with the employee during their maternity leave and stick to it. Provide additional training for the employees, who may feel they need to update their experience post an extended leave. Recognise their expertise, previous experience and professional identity. Elect a team member to be responsible for these transition periods. Allocate a package of coaching supervision sessions from an external agency (to assure confidentiality and impartiality) for returning employees post parental leave.
- Avoid discussions over how long the individual will be away for. Anticipate that this period will be 52 weeks long and treat any shorter period as a bonus.
- Good endings promote better beginnings. The way in which an employee departs to go on extended maternity or paternity leave often sets the precedent for how the team will cope during their absence and how the individual will feel about returning. Ensure that handovers are thorough.
- Conduct organisational research. Capture the stories of employees who go on extended maternity or paternity leave as a way to improve this transition for future staff members.
- Learn from the pandemic. The pandemic has shown that employees can successfully work flexible hours, and businesses must rethink their protocols and learn from the pandemic. This is one of the main requests by staff returning from maternity leave.
- Be transparent about how the role will be backfilled during the team member’s absence. Explain your expectations for the team during this time. Be clear about the options available to the staff member and team for when they return.
- Inform staff about support groups. Support groups such as Mentor Mums offer support for new mums and a safe space for women to share their concerns and challenges over their return to work. These groups provide free, impartial advice and offer outside support.
Thom Dennis and Stacy Moore