Skip to content

Supporting employees returning to work from family leave



The prospect of returning to work from a period of family leave can be an incredibly dauting one for employees who have had a significant period of time away from work. I was feeling a maelstrom of emotions prior to returning to work recently after my year of maternity leave, including fear that my bond with my baby would dissolve when returning to work and genuine worry about whether I would be able to remember how to do my job, having been immersed in an entirely different world of nursery rhymes and nappies for such a long time.

There are a number of steps that an employer can take to support returning employees both prior to and on their return to help build their confidence and ease their transition back to the workplace.

Ease the transition

Keeping communication open both during family leave and after can help to mitigate any feelings of isolation. Whilst an employer might assume that an employee wants to completely switch off from work during their family leave, you should always check to see if the employee would like to be updated on an informal basis about what is going on in the workplace and whether they would like to catch up whilst on leave. Keeping employees updated (if the employee agrees) will ensure that it is not a complete shock when they return to work and see that new people have been recruited, or that colleagues have left, or been promoted etc. Regular communication can also assure the employee that they are still a valued member of the team and that everyone hasn’t “moved on” without them.

Keeping in touch (KIT) days are a brilliant way of staying in touch and involving employees while on leave. Managers should discuss in advance with an employee how a KIT day can be used so that it is clear from the outset what will be possible. 

Understand that your employee may be feeling mixed emotions and provide a supportive culture

As an employer, you should be mindful that your employee may be feeling all sorts of emotions: daunted, anxious, worried, and low in confidence. Returning to work after a long hiatus is a significant step in the life of a new parent and should not be underestimated. Employers should be particularly aware that for some returners, confidence levels will be very low, having been away from the work environment for so long. Research by and Research Without Barriers found that 69 per cent of women felt career breaks made them less confident in their careers and diminished their self-assurance. For some employees, they may still be struggling with acute sleep deprivation that comes with parenting a small baby. One of my major concerns about returning was how to navigate work and feel switched on when I had a baby who was still regularly waking through the night.

The best way that this can be mitigated is by providing genuine support to your employee when they return to work. This can involve a warm welcome back to the office, as well as regular catch ups and check ins to see how they are finding the transition. The first day back is particularly important, and employees should be reminded that you are happy to have them back. Encouraging returning employees to join a buddy system (where they are paired with a colleague outside their role) can also help. If you have a parent network, encourage the employee to join that too, or if you don’t have one, consider creating one. The sense of solidarity and opportunity for parents to share their hopes, challenges and resources with others will lead to an enriched sense of wellbeing and morale.

Establishing a culture of support is also vital. This includes, for example, the reasonable consideration of flexible working requests. It also means eroding any culture of “presenteeism” so that parents feel able to confidently leave on time to pick up children, and being mindful of the language that is being used, to ensure that it is inclusive (for example not using phrases such as “leaving early” and “part-timers”). As part of this, employers should also consider when meetings and training are being held and whether the location or timing of such events takes into account different working patterns and/or childcare commitments. Prioritising this will help to assuage any feelings of being treated differently. In terms of practical support, employers should also consider how they can support breastfeeding parents, including considering a break allowance to express milk, provision of a clean, warm, private room (which is not the toilet) for expressing, a secure, clean fridge to store milk, and flexible working hours for breastfeeding parents. 


Employees returning from family leave should be offered training to support their return. This may involve IT training and showing them how to get back to grips with systems, as well as more rigorous formalised training to help rebuild their skills, expertise and confidence.

In addition to training, employers may consider offering internal or external coaching to employees returning from family leave. Such coaching can offer guidance, strategies and tools to help new parent returners manage their professional responsibilities whilst prioritising their wellbeing, family dynamics and personal growth, and could go a long way in retaining staff who might otherwise feel that the work/life balance is untenable.

Give them time

Employers should be mindful that it will take time for employees returning from family leave to feel settled back at work and to build up their confidence.

Where employers set targets for employees to hit, consider whether those could be adjusted, reduced or removed for a certain period of time while the returning employee gets back up to speed. A recent report by Careers After Babies found that 57 per cent of respondents said that they left the workforce due to mental ill-health and the impossibility of managing their work and family responsibilities. Reducing pressuring targets on an employee’s return from family leave can help to make the prospect of returning feel less daunting.

Returning employees might be afraid of making mistakes on their return to work. If that does happen, employers should exercise compassion and where possible reassure employees that it is going to take time to work efficiently and effectively after a long time away, and that mistakes can be part of the journey.

Employers should also be mindful that, whilst a returning employee’s career aspirations might have changed shape, they should not assume this is the case. Conversations should be had with them, at the right time, about what they want from their career in the long term, potentially underpinned by an offer of support in terms of mentorship and/or career guidance.  

Flexible working

Employers will find that some employees returning from family leave will seek to revise their working pattern in order to navigate childcare and balance this with their careers. Flexible working requests should be dealt with reasonably and in accordance with the statutory flexible working procedure. For further information, see our blog on the latest changes to flexible working. Employers should tread carefully, as rejection of a flexible working request may form the basis of a sex discrimination claim if it cannot be justified. For more information see our blog Justifying indirect discrimination and flexible working decisions.

Step into their shoes

Empathy goes a long way, and employers should try to step into the shoes of the returning employee to think about things from their perspective. This applies not just to managers but to colleagues as well. Think about what you would need or want to hear if you were returning to work as a parent, and if you were once in that position, cast your mind back to that time. Approaching any challenges with sensitivity and without judgment will allow the employee to feel bolstered and positive about the workplace.

Senior staff who are parents speaking openly about their own children can help to demonstrate to new parents that it is possible to return from family leave and resume a successful career. As part of this staff should stamp out unconscious bias in others and be a spokesperson for the returnee, role modelling what good support would look like.

Whilst returning to work can bring up a surge of different feelings for different people, an employer’s culture of support can change the narrative from one of anxiety to one of positivity. Speaking from personal experience, coming back to work allows a parent to reconnect with our whole self, and to remind ourselves that we have a broad capacity, skill set and contribution to the wider world beyond parenting. Whilst I’ve experienced sadness around leaving my baby in the care of others, I have also found it liberating to find a different sense of purpose as a parent and an employee, and I know that having a supportive work culture has played a big part in that.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2024

Want to know more?

Contact us

About the authors

Shehnal Amin lawyer photo

Shehnal Amin

Senior Associate

Shehnal advises both employers and senior executives in contentious and non-contentious employment matters. She assists clients in employment litigation and provides guidance in relation to workplace investigations such as complex grievances and disciplinaries.

Shehnal advises both employers and senior executives in contentious and non-contentious employment matters. She assists clients in employment litigation and provides guidance in relation to workplace investigations such as complex grievances and disciplinaries.

Email Shehnal +44 (0)20 3375 7901
Back to top