Expecting more than a baby: Working it out for working parents

Rebecca Hourston offers advice for making shared parental leave more successful.

There’s no way to train for parenting – the only way to truly learn is from first-hand experience, in real time and on the job. So, what does good practice look like for organisations seeking to support their working parents?

Certainly, working hours and location flexibility is one key ingredient, but so is an inclusive approach and culture that seeks equality between the genders. Supporting dads as well as mums in the workplace is crucial to success.

But first let’s be clear about why it matters.

Don’t buy the tired myths about the theoretical loss of skills post-baby, or the supposed dangers of flexible working. New research shows how the transferable skills that parents naturally develop can make them even more valuable employees.

After becoming a dad, men reported that their abilities improved in a number of areas, such as managing personal wellbeing (47%), managing people (46%) and developing organisational skills (50%). A similar phenomenon was reported by new mums: 46% reported an increase in their organisational skills, for instance.

That’s according to new research of over 7,000 working parents about their experiences.

The research found (contrary to common assumption) that nearly one in three new mothers (32%) — and nearly half (46%) of new fathers — reported an increase in confidence on their return to work after parental leave.

New research shows how the transferable skills that parents naturally develop can make them even more valuable employees.

But over half (52%) of working parents, including 26% men and 30% women, think that their career has slowed down compared to their childless colleagues.

The research clearly shows how working dads are finding it harder to secure support from their employers. 57% of all those surveyed wanted flexible working hours. While 21% of women have never had a request turned down, only 14% of men experienced the same.

So, the case for action is clear – this is a valuable pool of talent who are becoming more skilful and confident and simultaneously finding less opportunity and enjoying less support.

How should organisations respond?

Well, they need to go further than simply setting the right policy – they need working practices that really make it easier for employees to share parental responsibilities between mum and dad.

More than half of working parents (53%) experienced a significant gap between what their workplace says it’s doing and what it’s actually doing; around half of that group (26% of the total) made this point strongly. Walking the talk is important. And there are some pivotal points of focus too.

The research shows how shared parental leave (SPL) can play a crucial role in setting the right tone in sharing responsibility across the genders. But one in three parents surveyed struggled to even understand their company’s policy on parental leave.

In the UK, two-thirds (66%) of working parents agreed that SPL can benefit couples by preparing them to share parental responsibilities more equally in future years. Successfully sharing their role as parents is essential for women to continue the progression of their careers and is key to closing the gender pay gap. 

But it will only succeed if organisations ensure working dads don’t face exactly the same negative experiences which have stopped working mums progressing in the past. And half of respondents (51%) thought that fathers who took SPL would experience a detrimental effect on their careers. 53% feared judgement if they chose SPL.

To send a clear and positive message, employers need to be transparent and proactive in publishing their policies on parental leave. They need to make SPL both available and appealing.

And although it may be tempting to focus budget, policy and support on one ‘return to work’ moment, the secret to successful support for working parents is an approach that takes account of the broader ‘arc’ of new parenthood.

This has four clear stages – pre-leave (‘Great Expectations’), on leave (‘Leading on Leave’), return to work (‘Confident Comebacks’) and then the extended period once their return is complete (‘Thriving Sustainably’).

This last stage is easily neglected but should be a priority due to the ongoing and ever-shifting demands and priorities of combining young family with professional commitments.

Organisations need to offer support across all four stages, not just by providing paid leave and on immediate return to work. And starting early pays dividends. Coaching or advice offered before leave can make a significant contribution to more sustainable and successful strategies later.

When it comes to supporting working parents as a critical source of talent, setting perfect policies is not enough. Leaders and managers need to be supported by their organisations to bring those ideals to life with advice, attitude and tools. 

As with parenting itself, management of the professional aspect of this life stage doesn’t always come ‘naturally’; it needs support, challenge and guidance too. Combined with a cycle of assessment and reflection, leaders and managers are key to establishing a culture where working parents can thrive and extend what they contribute to their employer.


About the author

Rebecca Hourston is Head of Working Parent & Executive Coaching Programmes at Talking Talent


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