20% of the respondents received no support from their employees;
While 40% of the respondents were provided with the possibility to use flexible working hours and 30% remote working, none of the respondents received training, wellbeing support, and childcare possibilities from their employer;
The majority of the respondents felt left out because upon their return to work their responsibilities and team had changed;
The primary fear among the responses was managing time (quality time with their newborn and work adequately);
In the European Union (EU), in 2019, nearly 42 million adults lived in households with at least one child aged less than six years, according to Eurostat data.
During 4 weeks (May - June 2021), we gathered responses from a small sample of new working parents from across Europe via an anonymous, online survey. We received responses from all those who were caretakers of a newborn and returned to work since the pandemic began from any of the following leave: maternal, paternal, parental, adoption leave. Although we were hoping to include a variety of caretakers in this study, all individuals who participated identified as mothers. The sample was homogeneous in the sense that the participants were employed by an organization/company and not self-employed. The duration of the parental leave varied from 12 weeks to 13 months with the most frequent leave duration being 24 weeks. 45.5% of the participants responded that their parental leave was not adequate in length.
Fears of returning to work as a new parent during COVID-19
A common theme across the responses was the fear of not having enough time to bond with their newborn and at the same time not working adequately. Some participants referred to this as “lack of time management” and trying to be present in raising a baby and performing their job at the level they want to. What’s more, the survey showed that these fears would result in burnout, in the attempt to balance both working and devoting time with the baby, while having no time for themselves and their hobbies. One participant referred to these fears, stating: “I was afraid of the feeling of not being successful neither at work nor at home because there would not be sufficient time to take care of the job and the kid”.
This fear, as a consequence, has resulted in many parents leaving their careers and devoting their time to raising their children; especially women who are bearing the impacts of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19, as well as the burden of domestic work. In fact, according to the American Progress Center, four times as many women as men dropped out of the labor force in September 2020 - roughly 865,000 women compared with 216,000 men.
Moreover, since the survey also examined the experiences of a new parent returning back to the office during the pandemic, we anticipated receiving many answers with concerns related to COVID-19 and health. The majority of the participants were afraid of getting sick returning to the office and transmitting COVID-19 to their newborns, or that their child would get sick in the childcare centers (when they opened).
Another interesting finding was that the female respondents, who were pregnant during the pandemic and consequently were staying home with no interaction with other people, did not know how to behave in the workplace in regards to distancing, wearing masks, and in general, did not have information on the COVID-19 health measures. One respondent wrote: “I was afraid of not knowing what the etiquette was around distancing because I had barely left the house since giving birth at the start of lockdown”. This shows that communication from the employers was not adequate.
Support from their employer, when returning back to work
What we were also interested in finding out with this survey was if the participants felt that their employers and line managers were supporting them when they returned to work and what type of support they received. In the question “What support did you receive from your employer?” we gave to the participants a multiple choice of answers including:
Employee resource groups, Child care, Flexible working hours, Mental health and wellbeing support, Training, or none of the above.
However, the answers we received were only in 4 areas, with 40% receiving flexible working hours, 30% remote working, 20% none, and 10% paid leave of absence.
This finding made us understand that despite the flexible hours and remote working, none of the participants of the survey received training, wellbeing support, the possibility to tap into the supportive networks of employee resource groups, or even childcare possibilities. The fact that 20% responded that received no support at all, is a startling statistic. For instance, one parent responded that the support she received was: “A short email upon my return”.
This shows that returning to work after leave is not supported enough and new parents do not get the appropriate training and wellbeing support. Especially now, during the pandemic, this support got even more sidelined and parents are struggling to maintain a work-life balance.
Feeling of being Left Out & Discrimination for new parents returning to work
The majority of the respondents spoke about how different they found everything when they returned from their leave. New colleagues, new clients, new responsibilities and they had no actual information and communication with their employers about how things have shifted during these weeks. One participant stated: “My small team changed a lot while I was gone. There was a shift of responsibilities and I was assigned to completely new files”. This lack of communication was of course worsened due to teleworking and the fact that it was not so easy to have a casual chat with colleagues and catch up with the latest updates.
Furthermore, from the experiences we have gathered in the survey, we have observed a feeling of guilt among the participants. Being the target of contradictory demands made them feel guilty, regardless of whatever they did; if they stayed at home or if they started working. However, this was not only a feeling, as some respondents experienced a form of discrimination when they returned to the office. One parent wrote: “My colleague was overloading me with work from day 1, which felt like a punishment of being away” while another response we received was “my colleagues and boss acted as if I had been on holiday rather than maternity leave”.
Family-friendly policies for all
This survey made us realize that the parents who are returning to work from parental leave, need even more support, trust, and understanding of employers and colleagues in order to get through this challenging period.
Apparently, COVID-19 has deepened pre-existing problems and exposed cracks in the way organizations operate and support their staff. This is why we believe that it is important for employers to put in place and implement policies that support working parents, which promote a culture in which workers feel comfortable without the fear of discrimination or retaliation for their parental leave. By adopting and expanding policies that aim to support working parents, employers have a central role to play in supporting the well-being of working parents and their children.
Here, we present some recommendations on what organizations and their leaders can do to make the transition easier and contribute to the creation of supportive workplace cultures:
- Promote flexible or remote working. Even though during COVID-19 businesses responded by adopting more flexible work schedules and teleworking options, it should not stop once the pandemic is over.
Many returning employees want to change their working hours in order to help them balance their new family and work. This provides employees with the opportunity to discuss with their employers what their options are. Some might wish to remain as full-time employees, but work from home and others may wish to shift or reduce their hours. There is a wide range of flexible working arrangements in practice, and it is not unusual for an employee to combine different types of flexible working to create a personalized working pattern.
- Check in on mental health and wellbeing. Companies can provide soft skill training to their staff based on mental and physical wellness support.
It is normal for new parents to feel a sense of stress, fear, and anxiety when they decide to return to the workplace. Let’s not forget that a proportion of mothers may also be suffering from postpartum depression, and they need extra support. In fact, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health the levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and post-traumatic stress during the COVID-19 pandemic were higher than the pre-pandemic levels. This is why it is a good idea to combine professional support (training, access to individual or group counselling) as well as social support (connect parents with each other and create employee resource groups).
- Promote good hygiene in and out of the workplace. It is important to share key messages on prevention measures, travel guidance, and ways to talk to their children about the virus. Moreover, ensure that your premises provide facilities for women who want to breastfeed in private. Make sure that there is room for them with good hygiene as well as a fridge where they can store the milk.
- Break the stereotypes and myths. Over the years a number of myths are still prevailing including that working mothers take advantage of their status to take more time off, or that parental leave is costly for an organization. Managers should provide training sessions for the employees as well as communicate and make a plan with the employees whose jobs might be affected by parental leave. You should discuss beforehand the handover plans, the responsibilities, and the temporary replacement.
As the employee goes through the process of returning to work, employers should support and assist this transition by deploying a number of resources in order to ensure a smooth transition. What’s more, it is important that employers and employees work together and come up with a plan in the early stages of the pregnancy. To that end, building a good relationship and staying even informally in touch during the leave increases the chances of the parent to return to work and feel supported and trusted.
We would like to thank all the participants who trusted us and filled out the survey with sincere answers, as well as those who helped us disseminate the survey among their contacts and networks.