How to talk to women about their pregnancy, parental leave and return to work - Women's Agenda

How to talk to women about their pregnancy, parental leave and return to work

I have recently returned to work after a year’s maternity leave. While in the past I espoused a fair workplace where staff felt valued and free to access their leave entitlements, I now have more of a sense of how this may really look (and feel!) in practice.

So I’ve written this piece for effective managers who want to be supportive of their staff but don’t know where to start. It’s also for staff (primarily mothers but also partners) to use as a basis for thinking through their requirements, expectations and assumptions around parental leave. It’s also particularly timely, given the Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent findings that one in two women (49%) report feeling discriminated against during their pregnancy, parental leave or return to work.

Below are some tips and points to consider in making your workplace one where people feel supported to take leave and keen to return to work.

Remember, these tips are intended as conversation starters – and all women are different. Whereas I was happy to wear figure hugging clothes when pregnant and share with my colleagues how my baby was developing, other women choose their right not to discuss what’s happening to their body at work – and this must be respected. Wait for your colleague, the mother-to-be, to set the tone and show you what she’s comfortable to talk about at work.


Many women choose not to share that they are pregnant until they are past the first trimester, or when it is more likely that the pregnancy will be successful. However, during the first trimester, many women feel unwell, exhausted, and are having to make big life decisions. Knowing where she stands at work can help make that period easier.

Never ask your colleague if she is pregnant. If she’s not, your questions could be highly offensive. If she is, and she has not told you, she will have her reasons. Rather than ask a personal question, it’s better to clearly state your organisation’s policies and she will tell you when appropriate.

Be clear about your organisation’s parental leave policy from the onset. For many people considering parenthood a workplace with a clear parental leave policy is highly valued and might be a reason they choose to work for you, even if they aren’t planning to start a family for many years.

Points for you and your organisation to consider:

  • When do you expect notification that a colleague is pregnant?
  • Who do they notify? Their manager? HR? Is there an officer whom staff can speak to if they’re uncomfortable notifying their manager directly?
  • Do you require they present you with a Certificate of Confinement?
  • From when do you expect them to take leave (how many weeks before the due date)?
  • Can they modify their role to accommodate restricted movement if necessary?
  • How do they apply for parental leave? Is the paperwork readily available?
  • Do you provide paid parental leave in addition to the federal governments’ payments?
  • Will you receive the Centrelink payments on your colleagues’ behalf, and if so, what details will you require?
  • What are your expectations if your colleague needs to attend antenatal appointments or fertility treatment? Are these to be claimed as sick leave? Can they be attended during office hours?
  • If your office is open plan, is there somewhere staff can go if they need to make private phone calls to their doctor or midwife?
  • What is your policy around leave for adoption, multiple births, miscarriage or stillborn babies?
  • Do you clearly state if parental leave is available for same-sex couples?
  • Do you have clear privacy policies to protect sensitive information that your colleague might not want disclosed?
  • Will you backfill the staff member’s position and will they be required to do a handover?
  • What length of leave do you offer?
  • Can they take six months leave (including the parental leave payments) and then negotiate if they take a further 3, 6, 9 months leave without pay? Or if staff are granted a year’s leave, can they return earlier if they choose to?
  • Do you allow staff to bank their annual leave so that they can take it when on parental leave in the future?
  • Can a staff member’s role be modified to accommodate their pregnancy?

Maintaining contact during parental leave

Being proactive and suggesting to your colleague how they could maintain contact, before they take leave, can help them trust they wont be forgotten. Knowing that they are kept in mind and able to hear of significant news when on leave can minimise their sense of isolation, and make their return to work easier.

Points to consider:

  • What are your expectations of your colleague when they’re on leave?
  • Do they notify one person once the baby arrives and that person shares the news with all staff?
  • Will your colleague determine when to initiate contact, or will their manager contact them after a set number of weeks to hear how they are?
  • Will they receive a home visit while on leave?
  • Would they like to opt in to receiving certain emails to their home email address (perhaps newsletters, regular updates, staff news etc)?
  • Will they have access to their work email from home, and what expectations does this establish?
  • Would they like to be consulted if there are any major changes at work (restructure / new clients etc) to make their return to work easier, or would they prefer not to think about work until they are preparing to return?
  • Will your colleague return to the same position they left? Can they return part-time? If so, can you be flexible with the days/hours they work?
  • If they return to a different role, can they apply while on leave, and commence the new role while on leave?
  • Are you open to them returning in a job share capacity? Could another colleague be seconded to job-share with them? What examples of successful flexible arrangements can you model?
  • If training and development sessions are offered to staff, can members on leave return to participate?
  • Can you provide lists of child care centres close to work?

A new parent’s return to work

Returning to work can be something for staff to look forward to when they know how to plan for this stage. All staff should be clear of their flexible work options, and all managers should be adept at supporting staff to find the most effective arrangements. Flexible work arrangements should be consistent and available to all staff – men and women, regardless of role.

Remember that the first few weeks back at work can be emotionally and logistically challenging for your colleague. How can you and your team offer a flexible, responsive practice to support your colleague to return? Consider the following points, and make sure your staff are clear of your policies well before they need to make return to work plans (preferably before they go on leave).

Points to consider:

  • Is there somewhere for women to express and safely store their breast milk? Can you provide flexibility for feeding if the child is located close to the workplace?
  • Can staff make a staggered return? I.e. working one day per week to begin with and gradually picking up more days as childcare becomes available?
  • If working part-time, are the workdays flexible?
  • If working part-time, will the staff member be involved in redesigning the position to make it part-time?
  • Are there other staff working part-time or job-share who can mentor the returning staff member? Do senior staff role model flexible work practices?
  • Do you actively challenge workplace stigma around part-time workers? Is the whole team familiar with your Return To Work strategy?
  • Are your managers trained in implementing your parental leave policy? Do they feel equipped to support staff through each phase?
  • Can you offer access to an Employee Assistance Program?
  • Have you considered sharing online calendars so that staff can field calls for each other? Do staff update their email signatures to indicate work days?
  • Can staff work from home if necessary?
  • If the child is unwell, can staff access Carer’s leave, or do they take a day from their own sick leave entitlements?
  • Are regular meetings held on alternate days to accommodate part-timers?
  • Are meetings held during school hours?
  • Are minutes taken at staff meetings for staff who cannot attend?

For partners

For any family, the flexibility that partners have in taking parental leave is fundamental to the mother being able to fully realise her working options. Partners also need to know where they stand.

Points to consider:

  • Do you offer paid parental leave in addition to that of the government?
  • What paperwork does the partner need to complete?
  • Are they entitled to take leave without pay?
  • Are they able to negotiate part-time employment?
  • How do you support partners who access Primary Carer Leave?

Note: It shouldn’t matter if a couple is opposite or same-sex. And, just as you wouldn’t ask a heterosexual couple how they conceived, it’s not on to ask a same-sex couple.

Your attitude to parental leave contributes to your overall workplace culture. Show an interest in their pregnancy. Let them feel they’re not missing out when on leave. Welcome staff returning from leave. Not just for them, but for the culture of your whole workplace.

How else can you support staff making these transitions? Could you establish a mentor system? Or a new parents group where new mums and dads could talk about their experiences and share tips? How could these experiences further strengthen your workplace culture and create a fantastic team dynamic shared by all?

Use these pointers to develop your own policies, and open up the conversation around parental leave at your workplace. It’s good practice to develop these policies, and regularly seek feedback on them from staff taking parental leave. These can form the basis for staff taking any extended leave and requiring workplace flexibility. Ensure these policies are easily accessible, and that staff can email them to themselves at home so they can read them in privacy if they prefer.

It is no longer acceptable for organisations to be on the backfoot with these policies, thereby putting the pressure on women to think through all these arrangements, from all parties’ perspectives. It is imperative that all managers educate themselves on best practice in this field, and understand what that may look like in their specific workplace.

As well as being a conversation starter in your workplace, please list your own tips in the comments below to further the conversation in the sector more broadly.

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