Family Wellbeing

How to Best Support New Parents When They Return to Work

Returning to work after having a child presents unique challenges for new parents. Discover how HR leaders and supervisors can foster a smooth transition and promote the well-being of new parents in the workplace.

Written by
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Lynn Burrell
Lead Content Manager
Clinically reviewed by
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Man and woman smile as they hold their newborn baby

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    New parents returning to work after the birth of a child face extraordinary challenges. They must balance the demands of changing diapers, attending to nighttime feedings, and meeting work deadlines. 

    They navigate two profoundly demanding roles: nurturing a fragile new life while striving to maintain optimal performance at work.

    In this delicate phase, new parents must negotiate the intricate interplay of sleep deprivation, postpartum hormone fluctuations, physical recovery, and the complex emotions inherent to welcoming a child into their lives.

    Return to work challenges

    When an employee takes leave for the birth of their child, their entire focus shifts toward their new role as a caretaker, which involves a significant upheaval in responsibilities and routines. 

    Once the employee returns to work, they face the daunting task of balancing being a parent and an employee, all while prioritizing their mental health and overall well-being.

    This process is further complicated by the physical and emotional changes individuals experience after giving birth. Upon resuming work, employees may experience:

    • Hormonal fluctuations
    • Physical healing and complications from childbirth
    • Sleep deprivation
    • Navigating new relationship dynamics with a partner
    • Challenges related to childcare arrangements
    • Coping with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders

    Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs)

    Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), formerly known as postpartum depression, are the most common complications related to childbirth in the United States. They affect a wide range of individuals worldwide, with rates varying from 5% to 60%

    PMADs impact one in five birthing parents, while one in ten non-birthing partners also experience these disorders. It’s important to note that a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder can potentially affect anyone involved in caretaking responsibilities.

    Most people are familiar with the baby blues, which can affect up to 85% of new parents. For the first two weeks postpartum, a birthing parent’s body undergoes significant physiological changes, including hormonal fluctuations, heightened emotions, and healing from childbirth. 

    Typically, these symptoms resolve within a couple weeks as hormone levels stabilize. However, if the baby blues persist beyond this period, it may indicate that the individual is experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder

    Access to childcare

    In addition to the physical and emotional changes, the search for childcare poses a significant challenge for many new parents and caregivers of young children.

    A recent report, based on a survey of working parents, sheds light on the difficulties they face when accessing childcare. The findings reveal skyrocketing costs, surpassing college tuition fees in certain states, and a severe shortage of available spots. As a result, millions of working parents can’t secure suitable childcare during work hours. 

    In 2022, the lack of childcare led to the following consequences:

    • 44% of parents had to reduce their work hours
    • 26% made the difficult decision to quit their jobs
    • 23% were fired from their positions
    • 33% had to turn down job offers
    • 25% had to decline promotions

    The absence of affordable childcare costs the economy $122 billion in lost wages, productivity, and tax revenue. The mental health toll on working parents is harder to calculate.

    Crafting a thoughtful return to work policy and plan

    Workplace leaders, including HR and supervisors, play a crucial role in facilitating the successful transition of new parents back to work after the arrival of a baby.

    Establishing a clear and comprehensive policy is essential to ensure everyone is well-informed and aligned on the procedures and expectations during parental leave. Ideally, this policy would involve a formal, written plan to minimize confusion and ensure consistency among employees and leaders.

    Returning to work can be an overwhelming experience for new parents. However, having a well-defined plan can greatly facilitate the transition process. It’s important to recognize that the employee’s lived reality and evolving needs may require flexibility and adaptation.

    Example return to work plan

    Returning to work after parental leave shares similarities with onboarding a new hire. Here’s an example of what this process could entail:

    • First day back: the employee returns for a half day, allowing time to settle in, reconnect with colleagues, and meet with their supervisor. This meeting serves to discuss future responsibilities and schedules.
    • Second and third days: the focus is on meetings, where employees are brought up to speed on any updates or changes during their absence.
    • Fourth and fifth days: this period involves planning upcoming projects and deadlines, ensuring a smooth transition into full work mode.

    Throughout the process, the employee could meet with a supervisor or HR leader to assess the employee’s well-being and address any specific needs or concerns they may have.

    Before going on leave, it’s beneficial for the employee to have conversations with HR leaders and supervisors. These discussions cover the entire process, including pre-leave preparations, details about the leave, and expectations and support upon the employee’s return to work.

    Return to work support

    Each employee will likely have a different vision in mind for how they return to work. Some may want to jump back in and go full speed, some may need more time to adjust to their new routines and responsibilities, and some may initially decide on one path and then discover that the reality of their experience requires a different plan.

    Here are some potential guiding principles to consider for easing employees back into the workplace:

    • Part-time or flexible hours: this allows parents the flexibility to adjust their work hours around the needs of their newborn, including accommodating their sleep patterns and childcare routines. 
    • Planning for childcare contingencies: establishing a clear plan for situations when a child is sick or when daycare facilities are closed, ensuring parents have options and support to manage these circumstances. 
    • Managing information overload: be mindful of employees’ potential to feel overwhelmed as they catch up on work after their leave, taking steps to prevent information overload and providing support in prioritizing tasks and responsibilities.
    • Support for breastfeeding parents: ensuring breastfeeding employees have access to clean, private spaces for pumping and the necessary time during the workday.

    If a new parent is struggling when returning to work, supervisors and HR leaders can engage in open conversations to identify areas that need adjustment and revamp the return to work plan accordingly.

    Additionally, leaders can connect employees with relevant benefits and mental health support designed for parents, ensuring they have access to resources to assist them during this transitional phase.

    Supporting mental health during the return to work transition

    Caregiving can be heavy, as it entails shouldering the immense responsibility of tending to another individual’s social, emotional, and physical needs. Given the magnitude of the task at hand, this role can often invoke feelings of loneliness.

    At the same time, new parents find themselves navigating a wide range of emotions. They experience the joy of witnessing their baby’s growth and development while harboring anticipation for their return to work and adult interactions. 

    It’s natural for them to grapple with guilt over the prospect of leaving their young baby and moments of separation anxiety. Furthermore, they may also experience heightened stress and anxiety levels concerning their baby’s well-being and developmental progress.

    Anxiety over child development

    The developmental stages for children under five change rapidly and quickly, surpassing any other phase in a child’s life. As caregivers, it’s natural to establish routines and feel a sense of mastery in handling the current aspects of child-rearing. 

    However, as we settle into a routine, new milestones and behaviors emerge, requiring adjustments and adaptations. This dynamic can give rise to insecurity or anxiety for parents and caregivers as they strive to keep pace with their child’s development.

    It’s common for parents, particularly first-time parents or caregivers without prior reference points, to wonder if their child is meeting milestones within the expected range.

    Even for seasoned parents, each child is unique, further increasing the challenges and adding to the burden on their mental health.

    Comprehensive mental health support for parents and caregivers

    Spring Health’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offers comprehensive mental health support and resources tailored to families, parents, and caregivers of children under five. These include:

    • Parent-specific coaching: Spring Health provides coaching guidance and support to new parents in areas such as time management and achieving a healthy work-life balance while fulfilling caregiving responsibilities.
    • Parenting skill development: assistance is available to help parents build essential skills to support their children’s emotional well-being. This may involve strategies for assisting children in identifying and managing emotions and promoting self-regulation.
    • Care navigation: each is paired with a master’s level clinician who can offer personalized guidance, connect parents with appropriate resources, and address any concerns they may have regarding their child’s development or behavior. 
    • Providers specializing in parental support: Spring Health collaborates with mental health professionals working with parents and caregivers. These providers possess the expertise to address young children’s unique challenges and mental health needs.
    • Support for grief and traumatic events: Spring Health’s EAP supports parents and caregivers dealing with grief or traumatic experiences. Access to specialized resources and assistance can help individuals navigate these difficult circumstances and promote their overall well-being.

    Leading with empathy: supporting new parents in balancing parenthood and work

    Supervisors and HR leaders must approach the return to work process with empathy and understanding. Most people have an underlying drive to fulfill their responsibilities at a high level for themselves and the good of their coworkers and the company. 

    Caregivers are no different. Like any other employee, caregivers possess remarkable capabilities and are adept at multitasking. However, despite their competence, they still require support and space to navigate the intricacies of adjusting to the demands of caring for a newborn while fulfilling their work obligations.

    HR leaders, supervisors, and new parents can work together to find effective solutions by fostering a collaborative and supportive environment. Open communication, active listening, and flexibility facilitate adapting work arrangements. 

    This collaborative approach ensures that new parents feel valued, understood, and empowered to navigate the challenges of balancing their caregiving responsibilities with their professional roles.

    ‍Learn how coaching can help parents navigate the experience of raising kids, juggling personal needs, and performing at work.

    About the Author
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    Lynn Burrell
    Lead Content Manager

    Lynn came to Spring Health from her start-up company Weldon, a parenting wellness app acquired by Spring Health in March 2022, where she was a co-founder. She has extensive experience working with children and families with Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Mental Health and Physical Health challenges, and Executive Functioning Difficulties. Lynn has a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Assessment and a Professional Diploma in School Psychology. She has certifications and has practiced in New York, New Jersey, and California.

    About the clinical reviewer
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