“How to” – Support and retain staff during parental leave

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Combining a successful career with raising a family can be challenging. It is often described as a constant juggle of competing demands – one is expected to work like one doesn’t have kids, and to parent like one doesn’t have to work (1). Regardless of your role in health care, once you add a little person to the mix, life changes dramatically; whether you are a family of 2 Mums, a Mum and Dad, 2 Dads or a single parent.

Supporting staff who take on a parenting role is important to allow these valuable staff members to continue to feel connected to their workplaces, and continue to deliver their best work. WRaP EM would like to highlight some strategies for organisations to help optimise the career of their staff (both Mums and Dads) who will, now or in the future, juggle more complexity in their work and home life as a result of being parents.

Retaining Top Staff During Parental Leave

By Tracy Churchill

The gender of the healthcare workforce in Australia is currently overwhelmingly female with 89% of all nurses and 43% of doctors being female.  This number continues to increase with the majority of medical school graduates being female for the past two decades. Many of these women will plan to have children during their careers. The 2016 Australian census reports that 55% of opposite-sex couples and 15% of same-sex couples in Australia have children. (2) There is also a growing number of single-by-choice parents in our society. This means a large portion of the healthcare workforce will likely become parents at some point in their career.

Currently, 84% of women who have children will either significantly reduce their work hours or leave work altogether for an extended period of time, and many will never return to their full time equivalent (3).

In the Australian healthcare public sector, the primary carer of a child is eligible for three months paid full time Maternity Leave (ML). It may be as little as 1-2 weeks for the non-primary carer on Parental Leave (PL). If you work in the private sector, or live in Norway or the U.S this might be very different for you.

The following strategies can help managers support, retain and optimise engagement of all staff within their workplaces, whether they are thinking about having kids, are currently on parental leave, or have already returned to work.

Before Parental Leave

When staff come to speak with their manager about being pregnant or becoming a new parent, many are extremely anxious about how the news will be received.  If one of your staff comes to you to let you know their good news, the first words out of your mouth should be ‘CONGRATULATIONS’.

It is the department’s responsibility to manage staffing, not the responsibility of those who are about to have a new baby! No staff member should ever be made to feel guilty about announcing the upcoming arrival of a new family member.

Parental Leave pack

Another helpful thing you can have for your team is a ‘Parental Leave Pack’.

At Logan ED, this includes a letter of congratulations, helpful hints for new Mums and Dads, articles on how best to balance parenthood with work, recommended apps that will make your life easier and discount codes (specific to our workplace) for the highest rated breast pump company.

There are also considerations for coming back to work, a copy of the relevant parental leave policy, an explanation on how we can support people to transition back and considerations to discuss with your partner when you are returning to work.

There is also an example of a staged introduction to childcare – which helps the child be less unwell with ‘Day-care Ebola’ by the time the parent returns to work! Logan ED has found that this helps the parents have less sick days and more money, while also improving the staffing concurrently.

Strategies during Parental Leave

Offer opportunities for advancement

High performing team members will still be high performing even after they have children.  You will want and need to keep them as part of your team. Those who had ambition and drive before they had kids, will probably still have that ambition and drive now. They just might need help to channel it in a different way or at a different pace over the next few years.

When staff are on parental leave, assumptions can be made that their priorities have changed, or that they do not want to progress in their professional capacity as they are busy at home.  This may be true for some, who would like to have complete separation from work during this time.  However, this is often not necessarily the case.

When staff are on parental leave, continue to send out emails for advertised jobs, EOIs or advancement opportunities. Invite those on leave to Professional Development Days to help them re connect. This should be an optional activity with no expectation for new parents, just an offer to those who wish to take it up.

Rostering and Reaching Out

Check in regularly with those staff on parental leave about the timing of their return to work so plans can be made well ahead of time.

Ask them how they would like to return to work – Full time, Part time, Temporary or Permanent reduction in hours.  Do they need extra flexible arrangements to assist with childcare arrangements?

This again will help both the individual but also the department in longer term staff planning.

Social Events

Working in the ED, our colleagues are often like our ‘work family’. When our team members are on parental leave, we have a once a year ‘Meet the Bubs’ Morning tea where we invite new parents and their little ones to come in and reconnect with the team.  At this time, they can ask any questions they have, meet new team members and hear of any changes which have been happening while they have been away connecting with their baby.  Of our team who attended this optional gathering, 100% of them have returned to our workplace.  All of them have said it was a lovely event for them to see each other, and introduce their new family member to the team.

Keeping in Touch Days

Staff can feel anxious about losing skills during prolonged periods of time out of the workplace, and it can be nice for them to keep in touch with colleagues and stay up to date with major changes in the workplace. Keeping in Touch days are one way to address this.

Logan Hospital offers 10 paid working days that people can use to keep in touch with work without triggering the end of parental leave.

They can be used for training, supernumerary shifts before a return to work, job shadowing higher duties they might be interested in or working a shift back on the floor to get back into it.

This may decrease the anxiety associated with people who have not been working for some time and decreases the pressure on the team (by having our staff back in the game before officially being back).

Strategies for returning to work from Parental Leave

Breastfeeding Facilities

Continuing to breast feed after returning to work can be challenging, especially in a busy workplace like the ED. This can be one of the biggest sources of stress for staff, who may need a private room in which to express, available 24/7, and a fridge to store the precious milk, where it won’t be spilled or be at risk of being used in someone’s coffee!

At Logan, we have a small closet which has been upgraded to a breastfeeding room.  It is lockable, has a recliner, a footstool, a fridge for storing milk and a breast pump (which our staff can bring their own attachments for).  Before creating this room, management were unsure if there was actually a need for it.  In the year it has been open, it has been used by over 30 women.

You may not have a new space available but consider upgrading an existing one. Inspired by Logan ED, the QEII upgraded their family room near the ED Waiting area. This is now lockable for staff, but is left open otherwise for free patient use. With this approach, both staff and patients have benefited with more space, more comfortable chairs and more privacy. In addition, minimal capital funding was required for these minor changes. Any change which is cheap but optimises our environment for both patient and staff, is something to aim towards.

Rostering & Flexible Working Arrangements

Many parents need flexible working arrangements in order to balance the demands of working and parenting. Fair Work Australia states that this should be offered by employers to parents of a child who is school-aged or younger. (2) This may include working less than full time, working set days to assist with minimising childcare costs and flexible start or finish times. This can be challenging for an employer to accommodate in a complex 24/7 roster like the ED, however the law states that employers can only refuse the request on reasonable business grounds.

Open dialogue with staff should be encouraged, and every attempt should be made by the organisation to accommodate reasonable requests in order to retain and get the best from staff.

Support and Encouragement

When staff do come back to work, they need to adjust back into the fast pace of the ED.  With increased presentations and acuity every year, it will likely be busier when they return than when they left. Some staff may feel slow or like they have ‘lost their edge’, and it is our job as team members or managers to let them know there is always a transition period and not to be too hard on themselves.  Touching base is a great way to ensure that they know you care and value their contribution to the workplace.

Emergency Departments that are proactive about managing their staff through parental leave and beyond are likely to have no difficulty recruiting and retaining high quality staff. Make this a priority in your department to ensure you have a robust local policy to support the parents in your workplace.

Additional Information:

Keep an eye out for the popular SUPER (Skills and Updates for Parents in EmeRgency Medicine) courses which are run in EDs throughout the country, as a way for ED medical staff to refresh their skills prior to returning to the workforce.

About Tracy Churchill


  1. The Wife Drought. Annabel Crabb 2014 Random House Australia
  2. Australian Census Data 2016


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013 https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Nov+2013
  2. Flexible Work Arrangements – Fair Work Australia