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Staying in touch with your employees post-baby

Are you having the right conversations with your employees before they commence maternity leave?

What do I mean by "right"?  I'm talking about whether your conversation goes beyond discussing what they need to do before they go. I'm talking about the steps that you've taken to ensure you sustain a relationship with your employee while they're on maternity leave.

Unfortunately, very little effort is often made to ensure that a new mother is kept up to date with the latest staff changes or invited to participate in relevant training and development activities. It seems to be assumed that they won't want to know what is happening or don't have the time to get involved in work-related activities. Now that may be the case for some, but not everyone.

Having a baby is one of the most exciting experiences in a woman's life. At the same time, it can be incredibly daunting and, at times, lonely. As a mother of two adorable children, I remember wondering some days if I still had the capacity to hold an adult conversation, because I spent so much time with a baby whose smile would light up my heart but did little to stimulate my brain. 

While there is limited literature into the impact that taking maternity leave has on a woman's mental health, it is well recognised that women are particularly vulnerable to experiencing depression in the time surrounding the birth of a child. Data from the latest Australian National Infant Feeding Survey indicates that one in five mothers with children under the age of two years are diagnosed with depression.

There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest a direct correlation between feeling "a sense of belonging" and depression.  Research by Hagerty and William found that the strongest indicator of depression was "a sense of belonging", which explained 52 per cent of the variance on depression.

So how can you aid the situation and support the health and wellbeing of your employees who are commencing maternity leave?

While there is no silver bullet, a great place to start is simply having a conversation with the employee before they commence maternity leave. In addition to wishing them well and presenting with a baby gift or massage voucher, take the time to sit down with the mother-to-be and discuss how best to keep in touch.

I always recommend that you facilitate this discussion in a neutral location. Perhaps you could go for a walk or try a decaf latte together. If that's not possible, book a meeting room or use the communal kitchen at a quieter time of the day. Do not, I repeat, do not facilitate this conversation in your office. While this might be an incredibly convenient location for you, it does not fit the definition of "neutral territory" and, consequently, won't promote a conducive, open conversation.

Once you have found an appropriate location, it is then a matter of putting together a brief agenda and some specific questions that will help you determine the best way to remain in contact. This doesn't have to be overly complex. A good conversation can be as simple as the following: 

1.    Open by wishing them well and acknowledging how special this time is. 
2.    Explain the purpose of the conversation. Discuss the fact that you would like to stay in touch while they are on leave and that you want to gauge their level of interest and how best to go about it.
3.    Ask a couple of specific questions to help you understand how they would like to keep in touch.

For example, you could ask some or all of the following questions:

  • How connected would you like to be with the business while on leave?  
  • When would they like you to reach out? Is it two, four or eight weeks after the baby is born?  
  • What is the best way to maintain contact with you?
  • How frequently would they like you to touch base?
  • When would they like you to reach out? Is it two, four or eight weeks after the baby is born?  
  • What would you like to be kept informed of?  
  • If, through the course of the conversation, you find that the employee doesn't want to maintain contact while they're on leave, that's OK. At least, you've had the discussion and given them the opportunity to articulate their preferences and set the expectation. You've also opened the door in case they have a change of heart, because let's face it, you might not realise there and then just how important that contact will become. 

For those that do find that their employees want to stay connected and engaged by actively participating in work-related activities, "Keeping In Touch Days" are a great way to do so. To encourage primary carers to stay up to date with their workplace, the Fair Work Act provides employees with access to 10  Keeping in Touch Days without impacting their unpaid parental leave entitlement. The Fair Work Ombudsman is a great place to source additional information on the topic. "Circle in for Business" is another great resource for businesses looking to understand how best to stay in touch with their employees.

Christine Bau is the founder of People Focused. A qualified coach and experienced HR practitioner, she is passionate about helping employees and employers have quality feedback conversations.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain