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Structured return-to-work programs can provide flexibility and improve the transition for busy new parents.Damir Cudic

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When Toronto resident Allison Venditti returned to work after maternity leave, she didn’t have a desk.

It was the first indication that her employer did not have a plan in place to ensure that she, as someone navigating the challenges of new parenthood, would feel supported in her transition back into the workplace.

Some months later, Ms. Venditti, a human resources expert and leadership coach, quit her job to launch Moms at Work, a community of more than 10,000 members with a mandate to advocate for working mothers.

“Maternity leave and the years surrounding it represent the largest single point in which women off-ramp from their careers,” Ms. Venditti says. “When you return to work after your mat leave, you’re treated as though you are an afterthought. I bristle when companies lament [that] they have no female leadership pipeline. The pipeline is broken right at mat leave.”

Last year, Moms at Work conducted Canada’s first mat leave survey of 1,200 Canadian women. Results revealed that 95 per cent did not receive any formal support during their mat leave transition. 40 per cent considered quitting during return-to-work; 58 per cent of workplaces did not have any programs or plans around maternity/parental leave.

Flexible options for changing needs

Despite not being the norm for all Canadian companies, some progressive organizations have put processes in place to support parents as they transition back into the workplace.

Regan Bryan says that other than worrying a bit about her son’s adjustment to daycare, her transition back to work after a 14-month mat leave was seamless. Ms. Bryan, a senior human resources manager at BDO Canada, says that her company’s flexible work options for new moms and dads eased the path considerably, calling the program a “game changer” for her and her family.

“It was challenging to go from 100 per cent ‘mom’ one day and to 100 per cent ‘working mom’ the next day,” Ms. Bryan says. “Knowing I am able to flex my hours to accommodate daycare drop-offs, pickups and bedtimes, and then jump back online to finish my work [meant] that I didn’t have to choose between being a great mom and being a successful professional.”

Alicia DeFreitas is chief human resources officer at BDO Canada, an assurance, tax and financial advisory firm headquartered in Toronto with more than 4,000 employees. She says that the company prioritizes flexibility to set their employees up for a successful and positive transition, “whether that includes a reduced work schedule to phase back in or alternate work hours to accommodate differing priorities during the day.”

The company also offers employees access to counselling, financial and family planning when they return. In addition to parental leave, employees can avail a paid time-off program and receive up to 35 annual paid days off which they can use for any purpose.

“Our people have options to create a work experience that best suits their changing needs,” says Ms. DeFreitas.

Sharing experiences and resources

In 2020, Telus launched the Mama Bear program to provide a safe space to connect, learn and share tools and strategies to calibrate work and home life, says Angelica Victoria, manager, operations at Telus. Ms. Victoria co-founded the program with Kate Evans, manager, transformation and enablement at Telus.

Mama Mixers, an element of Mama Bear, provides members a safe space to share experiences on managing stress and their parental leave journey. New parents also have access to a virtual group chat, guides and other resources.

“With the Mama Bear program, we’ve created space and some new tools necessary to navigate work and parenting,” Ms. Evans says. “The program has created both a buzz and elevated discussion across the company about work-life integration.”

Additionally, Telus offers flexible work options so that employees can work where and when they are most effective.

Reckoning with the ‘motherhood penalty’

While the majority of Canadian employers are small and medium-sized businesses that may not have the resources or money to implement robust return-to-work plans, it’s clear that there’s an urgent need for organizations to do better, says Ms. Venditti.

From a career standpoint, women are often penalized for becoming mothers. According to an RBC Economics Research report, women aged 25 to 34 see their earnings fall by almost half following the birth of a first child, compared to women with no children. New moms between the ages of 25 to 29 lose an additional 14 per cent of their income because they are likely to miss out on opportunities for career development and advancement.

While these issues aren’t easily fixed, better return-to-work programs can help reduce the number of women falling off the career track in the early stages of parenthood.

Ms. Venditti says companies should align maternity leave with other leaves and implement centralized, graduated return-to-work programs accessible to all employees.

“I find it ridiculous that companies are dumping millions on ‘attracting women ad campaigns’ when the answer is staring them straight in the face,” she says. “Fix this process and save yourself thousands of dollars.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I’m a business owner and we are in the process of hiring a fantastic new employee. She is physically disabled, and I want to ensure that our workplace is accessible for her. What is the best way to approach this – should I ask her to help identify potential issues? What are some resources to help me ensure I’ve done everything right?

We asked Tamisha Parris, equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusion consultant at Parris Consulting in Vancouver, to field this one:

The great thing about this question is that it indicates you as the business owner are thinking not just about disability inclusion, but also about how to leverage a fantastic new employee by making the workplace accessible. It’s the essence of a “win-win.”

The first thing to keep in mind is that people with disabilities are experts in their own lives. They have years of experience navigating a world that wasn’t built for them. So it’s a great idea to ask the new hire to identify potential barriers – as well as what she needs to succeed.

Next, assure the new hire that you have (or are developing) an HR process to take and fulfill accommodation requests – and most importantly, that requests are welcome. This goes beyond stating your awareness of an employer’s legal duty to accommodate; you’re stating your company’s commitment to attract, recruit and hire people with disabilities, and to support their thriving.

If you are just starting to formulate an HR policy and process for accommodations, be transparent about this with your new hire and ask for feedback. As your process develops, apply it to all candidates. This creates a sense of safety for people to disclose a disability, especially an invisible one, and it shows candidates (and your existing employees) that you support people to be their authentic selves. You may be surprised at how easily fulfilled many accommodations requests are – and how they can boost confidence, productivity and efficiency, putting employees on a trajectory to success.

Once you’ve granted an accommodation to your new hire, other employees may ask about it, whether out of curiosity or because it impacts their work. (For instance, if the accommodation calls for hybrid work or flex time, resulting in more Zoom calls for the team.) Talk to them – with the new hire’s permission – about the accommodation and how it will affect them, if at all.

If they are curious to learn more, direct them to resources such as:

When you create a welcoming space for disclosure and accommodation, you demonstrate that disability inclusion matters to your organization, and you open the door to a wealth of untapped talent.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.