Transitioning back to work after your parental leave is challenging. While organisations within the public sector offer great platforms and support for those who go on extended leave, it doesn’t take away from the fact that returning to the workforce after a long period away can be daunting. You can become plagued by feelings of doubt on your return. Will you be able to cope with the workload on top of caring for a new child? How many things about the job or office processes have changed in your absence, and will you be able to keep up with/handle these changes?
The important thing to remember when returning to work after an extended leave of absence - and especially when coming back from parental leave – is that there is no 'best’ way to do things. Different routines and mechanisms will suit different parents depending on their situation. Reentry into the workforce after a life-altering experience like a new child has its unique challenges, so the most important thing is that new parents take the time to determine what routine is going to work best in order to ensure maximum engagement and job satisfaction. Luckily, the public sector offers a number of flexible working options to their staff, allowing new parents to work out what schedule works best for them on their return. Furthermore, many government organisations offer ‘returnships’ – programs that are specifically designed to support individuals wishing to re-enter the workforce after an extended career break. We explore the different options available, and how those returning to work or starting a new job within the public sector after parental leave, can utilise these options:
Before You Go Back To The Office
Consider Your Schedule
Before you approach your organisation about returning to work and seeing what options are available – it’s a good idea to have an idea in your head of how you would like to return. Do you want to return to work full-time or would you like to start by working part-time (at least initially). There are pros and cons to each option. For example, a significant advantage of working a few days a week initially is that you can give yourself time to learn how to balance the demands of your job with the demands of your new home life. It also forces you to prioritise better as working part-time (at least temporarily) means you can’t dawdle or procrastinate on things. You only have a finite amount of time to get things done and consequently will become great at prioritising tasks and completing them efficiently. On the flip side, working part-time for the first few weeks or months of starting a job could lead to confusion surrounding your work schedule – especially from other colleagues. Meetings might be scheduled in your absence, or things might need to be signed off in your absence. These can be easily fixed if clearly communicated when you first start but is something to consider when weighing up coming back to work gradually. You also need to be aware and comfortable with the fact that decisions on projects you’re working on could be made in your absence.
The biggest advantage of starting back at work immediately is that it will allow you to properly test-drive the career you had before going on leave. You can do some data gathering and determine if you can resume your previous work routine while juggling your new parental duties. If this routine becomes too overwhelming, you can always make adjustments from there. However, this is also the disadvantage of starting back at work full time; it will be a harder transition and might be putting too much additional pressure on yourself. It’s important to remember when making this decision that neither choice is right or wrong, it’s just about working out what routine will work best for you and your family.
Reconnect with the Office
Once you have an idea of how you want to return to the office, it’s important to communicate this with your employer; specifically the HR team and your manager or team leader. Ideally, your employer will have maintained regular communication during your absence and within the public sector - especially government – HR departments will often have a structured process in place on how and when to communicate with employees while on parental leave. However, it’s important to reach out to HR and or your manager when you near the end of your leave (if they haven’t already) to discuss the available options about returning back to the office. This can be done via a meeting (zoom or in-person) or a more informal coffee catch-up. Before your catch up, you can list the key things you want to cover before returning to work: what date would both you and the team feel best for you to return, will there be any training on or prior to your return that you’ll need to complete, is there any paperwork that needs to be signed, etc. Being able to talk these things out during a meeting or catch-up before starting back at work is beneficial, as you get a clearer idea of what to expect and consequently can properly prepare yourself. By talking things out with your HR team or manager, you can also get a greater understanding of their expectations of you coming back to the office and see if these expectations align with your own. If there is anything that doesn’t match up, you have an opportunity to raise it ahead of time and work together to develop a workaround. For example, if they expect you to attend a weekly meeting that starts at 4:00 pm but daycare closes at 4:30 pm each day, maybe you can organise with your manager to work from home the days these weekly meetings are on (Burry, 2021).
A huge benefit of working within the public sector is the range of flexible options available to employees – especially those returning to work after an extended leave of absence. So, when negotiating your hours and work schedule on your return, there should be a range of options available to you. For example, a common benefit for permanent local council workers is flexitime; a working schedule that allows employees to choose when to start and end their workday, and/or how long to take breaks, within agreed limits set by management (NSW Government, 2022). Part-time roles are also available and common within the public sector, as well as job sharing if employees would like to come back to a role part-time but the role in question needs someone to be available on a full-time basis.
Traditionally government organisations required employees to be in the office for the majority of the time – partly because of the sensitive data and information many government departments dealt with and the level of infrastructure required to manage multiple teams working from home. However, since the outbreak of COVID many government organisations have re-worked their remote/working from home policies and this can be a great flexible working option for new parents looking to come back to work. When starting negotiations about returning to work with your employer, ensure you’ve reached out to your dedicated HR team (as well as having discussions with your manager) to ensure you know of all options available to you. Most government departments and local councils will have their policies available on their website or internal employee database/intranet.
During Your First Few Weeks Back
While some people may want to completely switch off from work while on leave, others might take the opportunity to boost or expand their skillset. Furthermore, on returning to work they might feel the need to refresh their existing skills, want to learn new skills or find they are required to if they’ve been away from their role for an extended period of time. Luckily there is a wide range of government-run courses and programs that employees can consider. Furthermore, each state government offers a lot of fee-free training initiatives for those in high-demand industries. It’s worth doing your own research and again, reaching out to your employer to see what training your organisation offers and what formal training/courses you’re eligible for.
As part of ‘upskilling’ and supporting employees, many public sector organisations have actually developed their own ‘returnships’; a framework designed to help individuals reintegrate into the workforce following an extended career break. A big part of this framework/program is offering each employee the transitional support needed to feel confident and settled when coming back to the organisation. This support could include coaching, mentoring, and internal training and will often involve a manager, to oversee their progress through the program (Department of Education, Skills and Employment).
If a returnship or established ‘return to work’ program isn’t available to you, it’s still important to seek out support and encouragement from your workplace, especially if you feel challenged in your first few weeks back. Luckily public sector organisations have several tools and platforms to support their employees – from confidential, professional counselling services accessible to all employees like the EAP, to online support communities that employees can join to build connections with other people in the office with young children. Your first port of call should be reaching out to your employer to see what resources they have for new parents.
For those looking to get back into the workforce after parental leave and looking for new opportunities that align with their lifestyle and family commitments, Public Sector People have a number of exciting opportunities with local government and organisations that have a strong focus on workplace flexibility and work-life balance. Furthermore, our consultants specialise in finding roles that best suit the capabilities, interests, and values of their clients, and have some great advice for those wanting to brush up on their interview skills, fine-tune their resume or wanting general support as they dip their toe back into the job market.
You can contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org find out more.
- - -
 Madeline Burry. (2021) Tips For Going Back To Work After Maternity Leave. The Balance Careers. Retrieved from: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/tips-for-returning-to-work-after-maternity-leave-2062223
 NSW Government. (2022). Returning to Work After Parental Leave or a Career Break. NSW Government. Retrieved from: https://www.nsw.gov.au/life-events/jobs-and-career/returning-to-work-after-parental-leave-or-a-career-break
 Department of Education, Skills and Employment. (2022). Employing and Supporting Women in your Organisation. Australian Government. Retrieved from: https://www.dese.gov.au/employing-and-supporting-women-your-organisation/career-revive