Today, most companies are prioritizing benefits, such as flexibility and paid leave, as they become increasingly aware that their ability to attract and retain talent often hinges on company culture. But with so many organizations now offering employees these somewhat “standard” benefits—albeit important and appreciated—a common misconception can occur: If given enough maternity/paternity leave, new parents (particularly working mothers) can return to work without missing a beat, taking on just as much if not more than when they left.
New parent bias is a very real problem in today’s workplace. In fact, 43% of women with children leave or take breaks from their career because of the pull of family. Take one common example: A new mom is offered flexibility by Human Resources (HR); however, when she needs to shift hours to accommodate her new family life—baby gets sick, child care falls through, etc.—coworkers can often become frustrated and overloaded.
That example plays out countless times in countless ways, all mapping back to the reality that return-to-work benefits are an essential component to help companies systematize a culture that better supports working parents. As part of its return-to-work program, companies should offer training and resources to help managers and employees recognize their own biases and find ways to reconcile them without impeding working mothers and their careers. Companies should also look to provide managers with tools to best offboard and onboard employees as they plan for and return from leave, so managers have the ability to support employees through this major life transition.
At a time when women are being asked to lean in, we must also acknowledge that flexible work hours aren’t a cure-all for creating a supportive workplace where new mothers feel engaged and back on the leadership track upon reentry. About 1 in 7 moms will have a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder, and more than one-third of mothers say that they have experienced mental health issues resulting from parenthood. While dealing with their own recovery, moms reentering the workforce face added pressure that can compound the anxiety that most already feel about leaving their baby for the first time.
Workplaces need to anticipate these common yet very real health concerns (physical, mental, or otherwise) and address them on a case-by-case basis to ensure that all employees have the tools they need to return to work successfully. Maternity benefits that take into account all the other health concerns that moms face are equally as important to the return of strong women leadership after having a child—and much like maternity clothes, those benefits cannot be one size fits all.
Employers looking to differentiate themselves need to look more tactically at the needs of today’s evolving, modern families to better shape their benefit offerings. Are we asking new moms to travel for work, and are we thinking about how that factors into breastfeeding schedules? Are we providing equal support for employees who used a surrogate, rather than having a traditional pregnancy, or are considering adoption? Do employees feel that they have resources available and can ask for help if they’re struggling with starting a family (and need additional tools like in vitro fertilization (IVF), egg freezing, or miscarriage support)? Are they offering equal time off for new moms and new dads, to ensure that the burden of staying home isn’t immediately associated with a mother’s responsibility? A benefits package that is attractive to new parents doesn’t have to limit itself to flexible work hours and work-from-home availability. It needs to address the issues that employees will face head on and position the employer as a well-informed ally.
Mary Beth Ferrante is a career and maternity leave support coach at Maven Clinic.