Returning to work: managing childcare and parental flexibility

By Harley Dennett

July 29, 2014

Helping new parents to return to work is now recognised as an important element in workforce sustainability — public or private. But according to two new reports, few managers are getting it right and only half manage to even keep within the law.

Sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has documented that discrimination against working parents, pregnancy and returning to work in a report titled Supporting Working Parents released on Friday. She told The Mandarin that there were some good practices coming out of the public service, such as job share registers and parenting rooms, but there were just as many breaches of sex discrimination laws in government departments and agencies as the private sector.

“You’d think in a public sector workplace, with flexibility and family-friendly practices that have been well documented [there would be less discrimination]. You’d think it wouldn’t be as high, but we didn’t find that,” Broderick said.

Research for the national review, conducted by Roy Morgan, found one in two mothers experienced discrimination during pregnancy or returning to work, regardless of sector. More than a quarter of fathers and partners also experienced discrimination. Breaches include discrimination in safety issues, leave, loss of career advancement opportunities, threats of redundancy and negative attitudes.

“For the first time ever we have hard evidence of the scope. A paid parental leave scheme is the missing piece in the puzzle, but if women aren’t welcome at work that will never work to increase women’s workforce participation.”

A coinciding draft report into childcare needs from the Productivity Commission released last week also found the lack of child and daycare places that fit with parents’ needs was a barrier to employees returning to work. Presiding commissioner Dr Wendy Craik says many parents find it difficult to find childcare at the location, hours, timing, cost and quality that they actually want.

“Parents often told us it was quite difficult to find a childcare place for a child under one year old,” Craik said. “Parents also found if they worked flexible hours, like shift work or after hours work, that it was very difficult to find childcare places. Often there were difficulties with the location of the childcare, occasionally the quality of the childcare. Parents said they often had to be on multiple waiting lists, and there was a charge for being on waiting lists.”

Employees with children with additional needs often miss out on places, and that can limit their ability to return to work, and the hours they resume. While governments have a legislative and policy role, so to have organisation leaders who can help employees back to work by finding local solutions.

Making space to get parents back to work

Parenting or family rooms was one area that some public sector workplaces stood out in providing a safe place for mothers to breastfeed after returning to work. Without them parents reported having to breastfeed in toilets, storage cupboards and in other unsanitary conditions. Broderick warned that it also speaks to the dignity and respect the organisation is showing working parents.

Other organisations took the parenting room approach a step further in having space, fitted with a bed, chairs, TV and toys, that can be used on occasion if a child is unable to go to day care or school, or for where an employee can bring a child who is sick.

In Canberra there has been a move towards contracting a childcare provider to set up in-house in a government building, offering services particularly for the 0-3 age bracket enabling breastfeeding mothers to return to work more quickly.

“I really support in-house child care facilities, where that’s what the employees want,” Broderick said. “An organisation that’s looking to do that should survey employees, to ensure it gets used. There are examples where some employees want it closer to home instead.”

Keeping parent employees informed and connected

Parenting portals and jobshare registers can help ease the transition back into the public workforce, by letting new parents know what options are available to them, what policies the organisation has, and which laws applied.

Broderick says examples like Westpac’s Parents@Work interactive portal had ideas the public sector could explore such as seminars on managing a career as a working parent and preparing parenting leave.

“Communication is absolutely vital to employees to understand and not see pregnancy as a barrier to continued participation,” she said. “It’s the cornerstone. If we had strong communication and reciprocity we’d see a different picture.”

Public sector agencies are leading the way in the area of jobsharing to facilitate flexible hours for new parents. Broderick suggests creating an agency jobshare register as a tool to help employees and managers find an appropriate part-time employee in the organisation, but not necessarily in the same direct work area.

The jobshare register will be promoted internally on the organisation’s intranet, and relevant employment guidelines and fact sheets will be developed to support its implementation, along with the toolkit.

Look widely to find leading practices

Broderick found a score of examples of leading practice in the field such as strong leadership, flexibility and coaching. Demonstrating a commitment to flexibility and showing respect to employees on flexible schedules could be as simple as automatically adding a line to signature blocks, such as this example from Telstra:

“We work flexibly at Telstra. I am sending this message now because it suits me, but I don’t expect that you will read, respond to or action it outside of regular hours.”

Coaching was provided to managers of some private sector organisations to educate them on unconscious bias when managing employees on parental leave or after returning from parental leave. Other organisations created internal networks for parents to provide peer support, especially for new parents re-entering the workplace.

Broderick’s toolkit for establishing the foundations for success — getting your policies and systems in place …

Think big picture: understanding “what” and “why” Know your legal responsibilities as a business; understand and communicate the reasons; approach the pregnancy and parental leave process as a continuum. Utilise existing resources and advice from government and industry peak bodies; communicate policy and procedures; promote awareness and understanding.
Lead the way: role modelling behaviour Ensure senior leaders in the organisation are vocal and visibly committed. Senior leaders vocally champion the value of pregnant employees and employees on return to work; senior leaders vocally support and model flexible work arrangements.
Get the right policies in place: establishing effective programs Ensure policies regarding pregnancy, parental leave and return to work are comprehensive, effective and in line with legal responsibilities. Education and coaching for managers and employees; review of all decisions on dismissal or redundancy while an employee is pregnant, on parental leave or on return to work; flexible work policies; employer-funded parental leave (for primary and secondary carers); employer-funded early childhood education and care options; special measures to accelerate change.
Track success: monitoring and evaluating policies and practices Gain a clear understanding of the state of implementation of policies in your organisation; assess and review existing programs and practices at regular intervals to identify where improvements or changes need to be made. Regular audits of retention rates; regular surveys and consultations with staff who intend to use/have recently used parental leave or have returned to work; actively track career progression post-parental leave; regular implementation of relevant feedback into policies and practices
Enable informed and open decisions: providing the information Use a guide/toolkit; make the information accessible. Hardcopy guides/toolkits/brochures for soon-to-be/recent parents and line managers; make information available for download from intranet and internet; allocation of staff positions responsible for ensuring information accessibility of information.
Empower managers: providing support for management Ensure that all managers are aware and informed of policies; support managers with coaching and resources; ensure that the organisation’s structures encourage managers to support pregnant women and working parents Formal training and coaching for all managers; checklists for managers to assist in implementation of a formal frameworks and procedures; monitor and reward managers, eg: performance criteria and repercussions for managers who discriminate; conduct surveys to assist in performance feedback.
Empower individuals: providing support for employees Offer internal and/or external coaching and/or training; create internal networks of support; establish a robust return to work support infrastructure; provide anti-discrimination and unconscious bias education. Education and training; workshops; mentoring, coaching and buddy systems; establish online networks as a conduit for advice and guidance; establish support groups and programs.
Facilitate return to work: establishing flexible work arrangements Design flexible jobs and flexible careers; promote flexible work and embed flexibility into the organisation’s culture. Establish a “results-focused” culture; increased schedule control for employees; create jobshare registers; IT equipment purchases to enable remote work.

Broderick’s recommendations for employers

Recommendation 1:

  • Ensure the effective delivery and communication of guidance material and leading practices and strategies throughout the organisation, particularly to line managers who have responsibility for managing pregnant employees, employees on parental leave and those returning from parental leave.

Recommendation 2:

  • Leaders within organisations should make strong statements identifying the harmful stereotypes and take steps to remove practices and behaviours that perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
  • Organisations should identify and remove harmful stereotypes and eliminate practices and behaviours that perpetuate harmful stereotypes including through:
    • Reviewing/auditing existing policies;
    • Revising policies and practices;
    • Reviewing how information is provided to managers and employees;
    • Training all employees, including line managers, and;
    • Monitoring and evaluating the implementation of policies and practices which support pregnant employees and working parents.

More on The Mandarin: Women in the APS: better than the ASX, still work to do

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