When Jodi Geddes returned to her corporate executive role after going on parental leave with her first child she found it “hard to fit back in and hit the ground running”.
Her company had a great parental leave policy but there was little practical support and Ms Geddes felt disconnected from her workplace while away.
With her second child she was better prepared. Ms Geddes had a clear conversation about her career aspirations before she went on leave, stayed in touch with her managers and mentors while away and ultimately won a promotion before she returned to work.
The experience was formative. Two years ago, Ms Geddes and fellow former executive Kate Pollard left the corporate world and created Circle In, an online resource to help parents navigate parental leave and their return to work.
This week, Circle In for Business will launch the Stay in Touch program, which Ms Geddes hopes will “reinvent the way organisations manage parental leave”.
The program, which is accessed via a company portal, allows companies to stay in touch with parents while on leave.
It includes policies, updates on company information and online master classes on topics such as the changes to the child care subsidies and claiming “staying in touch days”. (It is little known that parents can access up to 10 paid days while on unpaid parental leave for activities such as attending conferences, training or participating in a planning day.)
There are also tool kits for managers on topics such as responding appropriately to an employee announcing they are going to have a baby. (Tips include not jumping to what the announcement would mean for you personally and being sensitive when announcing it to the team in case it may upset someone.)
The two launch partners, Medibank Private and L’Oreal, offer 14 weeks of paid parental leave to all new parents regardless of whether they are the primary or secondary carers.
(Medibank was last month named Australia’s best workplace for dads.)
But while 45.9 per cent of Australian employers offer paid parental leave, only 18.6 per cent have a strategy to support this, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
Even more damningly, just 8.4 per cent of male managers and 4.6 percent of male non-managers accessed employer-funded primary carers’ leave in Australia in 2015-16.
“A policy by itself will not create the change you need,” says Medibank’s group executive people and culture, Kylie Bishop.
A recent survey by recruitment expert Hays revealed Australian men were reluctant to take full parental leave because they worried about negative impacts including making them seem less committed to the job.
Circle In’s Staying In Touch program encourages all parents to utilise parental leave and access resources.
By sharing stories of men who have taken parental leave and also providing a forum for parents to communicate with one another, it aims to “normalise working dads’.
“It’s about cultural change and Circle In is critical to that,” Ms Bishop says.
Father of three Ray Lui, the head of group planning and reporting at Medibank, plans to take 14 weeks of parental leave in November to help care for his youngest child, who is now 11 months old. (At Medibank leave can be accessed any time in the first two years of a child’s life.)
“You can feel quite removed from the organisation during the time that you are away,” Mr Lui said.
“Similarly for me, as a manager I have had the same experience from the other side. Trying to keep in touch with mothers who have had children can be challenging, especially during the day when they are busy managing their kids, it is always hard to find time to connect with them and make sure they are across what been happening in the team. I can see a massive benefit of this for new parents.”
Jewel Topsfield is the national correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, based in Melbourne. She was previously the Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards, including a Walkley for international journalism and the Lowy Institute Media Award.