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Back after baby: How to support new parents in the workplace
New parents experience life-altering love for their children. But bringing a child into your family can be transformative in other, less positive ways: fewer hours of sleep, time commitment struggles and shifting family dynamics. Parents also face new challenges returning to work as they try to meet the demands of their employee and parent roles. As co-workers, how can we welcome back and support new parents in the workplace?
BeWell spoke to WorkLife’s Mona Hartmann and Caitlin Azhderian, who run BABBLE (Back After Baby Bonding Leave Ends) — a quarterly workshop that helps parents transition back to work, about how we can help new parents in the workplace.
Practice compassion and empathy.
“Most people don’t do well with change,” Mona says. “It can be challenging to have a parent return and see that they are not the same person anymore. The parent may not be getting a lot of sleep and could be temporarily living in a fog. And with parenthood comes increased expenses and pressure.”
As such, Mona and Caitlin urge patience and suggest relating the transition back to your own life: how would you want others to respond if you were in the situation? They advise remembering that transitions take time but are not forever.
Be mindful of what you say.
Extending empathy and compassion to what you say will help new parents. Baby bonding leave is a chance for parents to adjust to the demands of their caretaker roles, and they may feel guilty when leaving their children with a childcare provider or relative during the workday.
Thus, returning to comments such as “How was your vacation?” or “Do you really need to work?” could be upsetting. Additionally, avoid asking questions about sensitive topics, such as the circumstances of an adoption.
You can also be an advocate if you hear less-than-compassionate remarks about the parent by commenting that the employee is in the midst of a transition, and it won’t last forever.
Understand that your colleague’s priorities may have changed.
Parents may have to shift their day around the needs of their children, such as adjusting their schedules for daycare drop-off and pick-up or carving out time during the workday to pump. This means that parents may have to forego work functions or leave a meeting early. Understanding parents’ needs and allowing them to have flexible schedules will decrease their stress.
Remember that your co-worker is invested in their career.
Benevolent bias occurs when parents are not offered opportunities, such as leading a time-intensive project, because it is assumed their family obligations will get in the way. Both men and women face this parenthood penalty, but women are disproportionately affected by it.
Mona and Caitlin caution that while it is important for parents to have flexibility, we should remember that they have returned to work for a reason and are invested in their careers. Parents are still capable of devoting time and energy to doing quality work and advancing their careers while caring for their children.
Catch them up on how the workplace has changed.
Workplaces are constantly evolving; employees come and go, projects start and end, people switch offices. Therefore, parents return to a changed environment. Prior to coming back to work, managers can catch a parent up on any changes so the parent can adjust more easily upon return.
Ask how they’re doing.
Parents can feel isolated when they come back from leave. Asking how they’re doing personally — and dropping work-related topics at the door — can help the parent feel more connected.
“It can make a big difference to know that someone is thinking about you and your situation and taking time out of their day to ask how you’re doing,” Caitlin says.
Mona and Caitlin also note that some departments give a thank-you gift to returning parents and suggest that it would be thoughtful to give the parents something they can use — in particular, a basket of snacks.
Remind them of Stanford’s resources.
BABBLE not only offers new parents useful tips and resources, but it helps them connect with other new parents as well. The Help Center is available for parents who would like professional counseling to assist them in meeting work and family obligations. Finally, Cardinal at Work and WorkLife offer many resources to support parents and help jumpstart workplace conversations, such as What to Expect When Your Employee is Expecting.