A bridge between parents and employers

A new book for employers and parents by Catherine Oliver emphasises the importance of having open, honest conversations about the transition to being a working parent.


How do you best support parents back from longer periods of parental leave? A new book aims to provide a detailed examination of the issue from the point of view of mums, partners and employers.

Working Parents-to-be by Catherine Oliver is born of her experience of delivering sessions to parents and employers about how to best bridge the potential gap between the two.

Catherine was working at Sky when she first became a parent and, despite being with a supportive employer, felt the need to connect with other parents working for the same company who were going through the same thing. So she set up the Parents@Sky networking group. Over a decade later she is now an established Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and founder of the Bluebell Partnership. She specialises in helping organisations support working parents and their managers.

She hopes her new book will be a useful resource for all working parents and employers, but particularly for smaller companies who don’t have access to parent networks or big HR budgets.

She says she realised fairly early on in her work for Bluebell Partnership that line managers were a key part of the equation in terms of helping parents get back to work and many were terrified of saying the wrong thing. “I realised that you need to cover both sides of the conversation,” she says, adding that there are often lightbulb moments in the sessions she runs for line managers and parents where line managers realise there is so much they had not thought about. “The biggest challenge is definitely that people don’t know what they don’t know,” says Catherine. The book aims to help them understand where parents are coming from and how they can get the best from them. Meanwhile, parents-to-be are often more caught up with the whole birth thing and, while work is a worry, it is ‘tomorrow’s problem’, she adds. However, in Catherine’s view the more they can think and plan ahead the smoother the transition back to work will be.

When she first mooted the book, she thought there must be others like it around, but research showed that was not the case. Her publisher also couldn’t believe there was nothing like it around despite the fact that there are quite a few people advising companies, particularly the larger ones, about how to support parents at work.

Don’t make assumptions

For all it is about planning ahead and, in the case of employers, having open conversations about how to address any potential barriers.

For parents, Oliver advises acknowledging any worries, developing a support network and building a plan to reviewing the situation and their needs/wishes after the baby is born and working with their manager on any challenges on their return to work. A lot of it is about having honest conversations, with managers, partners, with anyone who can offer support and with yourself. A big issue that runs through the book is the importance of not making assumptions.

Catherine says both sides can be guilty of this if they don’t talk honestly to each other. Usually it is the managers who assume, for instance, that the returning mum doesn’t want to progress or go for a promotion or that they don’t want to be contacted during their leave. “It’s usually coming from a good place, but it might not be what the person wants,” she says. “The single most common thing that women say to me when they go back to work is that they are looking forward to using their brain again, but everyone is different in terms of their circumstances.”

Typically they don’t struggle with the job itself, but with the logistics of managing both home and work within certain time limitations, even if you return full time. For Catherine it is important for employees to talk to their managers about those logistics and to discuss what it might take to make things work. And when it comes to flexible working, she says it is about viewing it as a problem that needs solving, breaking it down and asking what the possible solutions might be.

She would like to encourage parents to talk about the challenges they face and how they have overcome them and she says employers need to think about how they make those conversations happen in ways that don’t put parents off admitting what the challenges are. She also thinks that both parents and employers need to value more the skills that parenting brings that are transferable to the workplace, such as the ability to prioritise and to use time more effectively.

Catherine would like to see employers, and particularly smaller ones, gifting the book to employees when they go on parental leave and their line managers. “It’s a sign that they want the employee to come back and want to help them to do so,” she says.

*Working parents-to-be is published by Practical Inspiration Publishing. 

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