11 ways to manage parental leave and ease your return to work

Going on parental leave from work can be an exciting – if daunting –  time.

If you’re feeling stressed about going on parental leave, or coming back to work after having a baby, you’re not alone. Research for SEEK found that 54% of people felt overwhelmed about juggling work and being a parent.

But organisation and planning will help you enjoy taking time off with your new baby, and reduce your stress levels when you return to work. Here’s some tips on how you can smooth your return from parental leave.

  1. Know your rights
    All employees in New Zealand who’ve worked for their employer for minimum average of 10 hours a week, for at least 12 months prior to the expected birth or date they’ll take over care of their child are entitled to 52 weeks of unpaid parental leave.

    You are also entitled to 26 weeks of government-funded parental leave payments if you will be the primary carer.

    If you’ve only worked for your employer for six months under the above conditions, you’re entitled to 26 weeks unpaid leave and 26 weeks government funded leave payments.

    There are also a range of laws and entitlements around parental leave, outlining what is and is not required of employers and employees. Find out more about paid parental leave at Employment New Zealand.
  2. Sort out your paperwork
    You’ll need to put your parental leave request in writing and provide it to your manager or HR department. It’s best to get this done as promptly as you can.

    In addition, it’s a good idea to bring home a copy of your employment contract, and if there have been substantial changes in the role or your hours since it was signed, have HR draft a formal variation to your contract before you leave, says Andrea Sumner, a senior industrial consultant with Red Wagon Workplace Solutions.

    This also applies to any flexible working arrangements you have negotiated for your return. It’s smart to put your request in writing in the first instance, to ensure there’s a record.

    “Managers change and restructures happen, so you want as much in writing as possible. If anything changes during the period of leave, you could be returned to your original substantive position which could be vastly different to the one you were working in prior to leave – or the one you have negotiated for your return,” she says.
  3. Set firm boundaries
    You may want to schedule regular catch-ups with your workplace while you’re on parental leave. But be aware that this can be a pitfall and turn into ‘leaky boundaries’, says Danielle Dobson, a corporate consultant to HR professionals. Requests for information, advice or even work on projects can quickly become normalised.

    And those ‘leaky boundaries’ can be a problem once your baby is in your arms and you’d rather spend time bonding and sleeping when you can.

    Don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries up front, Dobson says. “Speak to other people in your organisation who have been on parental leave and ask them what was challenging for them, what worked well and what they would do differently,” she says.
  4. Think about flexibility
    Workplaces are becoming more family-friendly. The research shows that 28% of people said flexible working arrangements are the most common form of support offered, followed by being allowed to work from home (17%.).

    However, only around 41% of candidates received some form of support from their employers after returning to work – despite 87% believing employers should offer some.

    Before you go on leave, talk to your manager about what flexible working arrangements you would like. You may need to put your request in writing to ensure there’s a record.
  5. Book childcare early
    It’s important to think about the arrangements you plan to make around childcare. For some that will mean setting up a plan with your child’s grandparents or other family members. For others it may mean organising paid childcare.

    Depending on where you live, you might need to book a childcare place as soon as you find out you’re having a baby. Waiting times can vary.

    Do your research on local childcare centres and don’t be afraid to ask questions, says Justine Alter, psychologist and co-director of Transitioning Well, an agency that specialises in supporting management and employees to navigate major transitions in their work lives.

    Asking questions can help minimise any anxiety you have about childcare, Alter says. “Try to get a feel for the place as best you can within the constraints you’re living with. Shopping around to make sure you are getting the right place for your child is important.”

    Ask about staff turnover, too, because that will give you insight into the day-care centre’s culture. “Visit - if you can - and see how the staff interact with the babies,” Alter says.
  6. Have a game plan
    Being prepared and organised at home is key. If there are two of you in this together, discuss your priorities and values, Alter says. Try to understand what you and your partner need from each other and be prepared to negotiate regularly on routines and priorities.

    For example, work out who will take your child to childcare, pick them up or leave work if your child becomes sick. Have a plan around who is responsible for the shopping, and cleaning tasks.

    “Often we assume that our partner is on the same page as us, but they may not be, and their workplace may not be,” Alter says.

    “Working out a plan at home before you go back to work, before you're exhausted and back in the daily work routine, can be really helpful.”

    Consider splitting the working week between you and your partner so you each get your work done while sharing the childcare load.
  7. Keep in touch
    If you want, you can use your ‘keeping in touch’ days. These allow an employee who is still on unpaid parental leave to go back to work for up to 64 hours to stay up to date with your workplace, refresh your skills and assist your return to work,” Sumner says.

    Note that if you exceed these hours or work within the first 28 days after your child was born, you are considered to be back at work. This also means that you won’t be able to get any more parental leave payments. 
  8. Foster a support network
    A network of people who have your back is invaluable as you adjust to life as a parent, Alter explains.  

    “Whether that's your parents group – even if it's a virtual parents group – friends, family and colleagues, your ‘village’ becomes really important when you return to work,” she says.

    You may find value in speaking to other parents who have been down this path before and can provide advice and insights to help you.
  9. Outsource when you can
    If you’ve been the main parent at home for months with a baby, you’ve probably taken on the mental load of running the household. Once you start work again, it can be hard to offload those mental lists, Alter says, and outsourcing can be a huge help.

    If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to manage with your current role or a promotion, Alter suggests working out what supports you can put in place.

    “Outsource and get some help with cleaning, meal delivery or cooking, or a nanny a few days a week.” Depending on your circumstances, this can either be paid, professional help or through the support of family or friends.

    It’s important to communicate with your partner too. Ensure there is a fair balance and you’re supporting each other the best way you can.
  10. Talk to your manager about returning
    If you’d like flexible working arrangements, talk to your boss about whether you’re able to slowly increase your days, which days you’d like to work and whether you’re able to have permanent days at home.

    This can start as an informal conversation, and then follow it up as an email to recap and confirm what was agreed, Alter says.

    “It's important to have an open conversation with your manager beforehand, and ask rather than assume.”
  11. Be gentle on yourself when you return to work
    Even if you can’t wait to get back to work, leaving your child can be an emotional time. In light of this, Alter suggests transitioning into childcare slowly.

    “Don’t plan to go back 4 or 5 days during your child’s first week of childcare. It will take time for both parents and the baby to adjust.”

    Think about the expectations you are putting on yourself: are they reasonable? Are you assuming you’ll be able to do exactly what you did before? If so, is that realistic?

    “Get the basics right: eat well, fit in exercise, prioritise sleep. That will help you navigate the many challenges of early parenthood.” 

    If you’re having a hard time, reach out for support from your family and friends, and from your workplace. Talk to your manager, your HR team, or call your organisation’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if they provide one, for free, confidential phone counselling.

Whether you’re about to go on parental leave or you’re getting ready to return to work, it’s important to be gentle to yourself. Being organised at home and getting your paperwork in place will help you enjoy your time with your new baby and reduce the stress associated with work.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published October 2021.

Information provided in this article is general only and it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. SEEK provides no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability or completeness. Before taking any course of action related to this article you should make your own inquiries and seek independent advice (including the appropriate legal advice) on whether it is suitable for your circumstances.