Balancing Babies & Business

Internationally in business, the burden of raising a family and maintaining a career is difficult for many women, studies tell us. While some new mothers take the maximum amount of paid parental leave available, the majority don’t. Three-quarters cite financial pressure as the main reason for returning to work early.

These findings are supported by the research of Dr David Baker, from the Australian Institute of Family Studies. He found that women who take up to 12 months’ leave, paid or unpaid, suffer future negative growth of roughly 7 per cent.

Clearly, uncertainty around promotion opportunities and pay rises is a big concern. As a rising star at law firm DLA Piper, Natasha Stojanovich had to consider these factors as she neared motherhood. A Senior Associate with DLA Piper and a recent parent, Natasha understands the challenges both parents and their employers face when a bundle of joy arrives. Taken in as part of DLA’s graduate recruitment program almost nine years ago, Natasha rose through the ranks and became a key member of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution team. Then came parenthood. Fortunately, she found the support and flexibility on offer helped lessen the burden of deciding how much leave to take.

“DLA has a pretty generous maternity leave scheme, which is 14 weeks’ fully paid,” she says. “I was able to arrange that to be paid at a 60 per cent basis for a longer period – that was great.

But really, it was the flexibility when returning to work that I found to be most beneficial.”

This accords with the Fair Work Ombudsman’s definition of a successful parental leave policy, which “should incorporate innovative and flexible arrangements that assist parents before, during and after a period of parental leave”.


According to Suncorp’s report titled Tomorrow’s insurance workforce: The future trends impacting the insurance industry, people are choosing organisations based on whether they offer flexibility around working considerations and hours.

“During the next decade, the employment landscape across Australia – and certainly the insurance industry – will look very different,” says the report.

“Employers will have to source talent from pools of people with increasingly diverse ranges of preferences and desires, and many insurance employees will not simply want flexibility, they will expect it.”

A recent survey by PwC found that 64 per cent of millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) wanted to be able to work from home occasionally, while 66 per cent wanted to shift their work hours around their personal lives.

This means the new generation of insurance professionals view flexibility as a given, not a benefit.

Further research by Ernst & Young found that women working in flexible roles waste only 11 per cent of their working time, compared with an average of 14.5 per cent for the rest of the working population. Once extrapolated, that means Australian and New Zealand businesses could save almost $1.4 billion per year on wasted wages by employing women in flexible roles. “Across all industries, 83 per cent of Australian women consider their work–life balance to be very important, but more than a quarter are dissatisfied with it. Furthermore, 45 per cent believe that their employers do not genuinely support it,” says the Ernst & Young report.

Michelle Ashby, Chair of the ANZIIF Women’s Council and Learning Program Manager at Vero New Zealand, maintains that this sort of flexibility is particularly important for women so they can continue to actively pursue their career goals.


Regular communication during leave, planning the employee’s return, allowing for flexible working arrangements and accommodating specific needs are all ways businesses can improve the transition back to work for employees. Some do it well; others do not. For aged-care worker Tanya, a company-wide restructure threw plans for a stress-free return to work awry and left her feeling disillusioned and angry.

“It’s been a shocking experience,” she says. “While I was still on leave, my regional manager was replaced and my role was combined with another one. Apparently, roles were being restructured across the organisation, which meant that the Fair Work Commission wouldn’t do anything due to exemptions around impracticality.

“Originally, they weren’t going to give me part-time hours, but I’d negotiated a part-time return with my original manager. The new manager has never met me, doesn’t know me and has blown me off. So, on top of taking the part-time hours away, they’ve doubled my workload.”

The poor communication and lack of support has led Tanya to decide to leave the company.


The immediate return-to-work situation is often overwhelming for new parents. Many, particularly mothers, find it near impossible to consider the long-term perspective, given the many other pressures and unknowns connected with new parenthood.

For Natasha, being able to speak to someone who had been through it was enlightening. “DLA Piper has introduced a new aspect to the flexible working program by making an external career consultant available to staff transitioning out of the workforce and then back into the workforce,” she says. “They set me up with an external consultant who has a legal background and three kids of her own … We had a couple of different catch-ups, where we mapped out what my career goals were, what my ideal working situation would look like and whether that would change from how it was before I went on leave.

“It helped me think about my career goals and expectations … And because the sessions were confidential, it allowed me to really reflect on where I was at in my career, what I liked and didn’t like and what had changed.”

These sessions provided Natasha with something a lot of new parents don’t get – time to think about what she needed from a career perspective. This helped her articulate the parameters with which she was comfortable.

Too often, this sort of career-goal planning becomes redundant, with many mothers indicating their opportunities to advance a career are interrupted by the double burden of balancing work and home duties.

Natasha had just been assigned a major case and was potentially up for promotion, so the timing of her pregnancy was, in her own words, “absolutely terrible”. But she was reassured by constant communication and by her management team’s openness to her needs. “They thanked me for letting them know early, told me they’d reassign the case, put me on some other things and told me not to stress. Three months later, they promoted me,” she says.

Evidently, employee consultation is integral for an organisation to provide effective flexibility options. And for parents, new or old, this is changing the workforce for the better. The Fair Work Ombudsman says there are significant benefits to keeping the lines of communication open when staff are taking parental leave, suggesting that every parental leave policy should include 10 fully paid keep-in-touch days.

“Good communication arrangements can help an employee on leave feel attached to the workplace, their career and their colleagues,” says the Fair Work Ombudsman.

“If the employee does attend work during a period of leave, they need to be paid for any work related activity performed at their usual rate of pay.”


The benefits of flexible work are clear, but if work–life balance initiatives are to succeed, many believe leaders and employees must challenge the traditional paradigms of ‘work’ and ‘life’.

They must think differently about where, when and how work is performed.  A report titled The Leadership Challenge: Women in Management, by the Australian Department of Social Services, says: “Leaders must embark on a process of creating and leveraging awareness around the principles and values of diversity in business.

A fundamental review of the corporate leadership paradigm is required in order to shift models of authority away from a narrow, technical, short-termism that rewards some men and isolates most women.”

Natasha says her firm’s partners understand the difficulties new parents face. She admits she was a little naïve about the physical toll that pregnancy can have on the body. But when her health deteriorated in her third trimester and she was forced to wind down to four days a week, her senior managers were fully supportive. In fact, her maternity leave payments weren’t even impacted.

Later, when she was ready (and eager) to return to work, those same managers didn’t pressure her, advocating instead a flexible approach whereby she undertook fewer hours per day to account for the stresses of parenthood. It is this kind of support that is essential for parents reintegrating into the workplace, and for others choosing to use flexible work arrangements. Most importantly, these arrangements should not be seen as barriers to career progression.

“In our team, most of the partners in, the office have families,” says Natasha.

“My immediate partner, who has three kids, has been amazing, and there have been those horror nights where I’ve had four hours’ sleep, and I text him and ask if it’s cool if I work from home today.

He’s very open-minded about working remotely and working flexibly.” While those with families naturally tend to understand, Natasha believes it’s more important that those without children are willing to try to appreciate the needs of staff with families.

“The head of HR in Melbourne doesn’t have kids and, upon my return, we had a conversation around breastfeeding and expressing and what I wanted to do, because they didn’t really have the appropriate facilities,” she says. “They were so receptive. She just wanted to understand what my requirements were, and they’ve since set up a special, private mother’s room for returning women, with a fridge for milk, sterilising equipment and comfortable chairs.

“It says a lot that they’re willing to have a dialogue to try to understand, those needs. She was even sending me photos of sterilising equipment and fridges while I was away on leave.”

A willingness to listen and support, and to offer flexibility, is in many ways the cornerstone to any company’s success. Flexibility, even for roles that are traditionally inflexible, allows for seamless returns to work and a more engaged workforce.


Shrutika Gandhi, a Claims Consultant with IAG New Zealand, spends her days handling claims over the phone. She says her manager and team have helped her adjust to life as a new parent, giving her leeway to slowly transition back into the working environment.

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to get back into the zone of being a working woman, and sometimes you forget certain processes or systems or shortcuts you relied on in your job,” she says. “My team leader was really helpful in managing my return to work, and they gave me a two-week period to gradually get myself up to speed. So even when I’d forgotten some things, they were very lenient and gave me all the resources I needed.”

Shrutika has no family in New Zealand, so has found it particularly difficult to juggle all the demands of a first baby. “The company has been really helpful in accommodating me with part-time hours and working around my scheduling requirements,” she says. “They have been able to help by letting me start and finish early, so I can pick up my son and do what needs to be done at home.”

In Natasha’s case, she believes her firm’s focus on ensuring a smooth return to the workplace is a significant reason for its high levels of staff engagement and retention. And the statistics back her up. DLA Piper’s current retention rate of employees returning from parental leave is an impressive 96 per cent.

Almost a quarter of all employees and partners operate on a formal flexible working arrangement. Three of those individuals were promoted in the past year, including one who was on parental leave. “It’s about changing mentalities and providing that value proposition,” says Natasha.

“If someone is in three days a week and they’re doing their job, they’re hitting their targets and their clients are happy, why should it make a difference?”


Some best-practice features of a return-to-work program include:

  1. A fully paid, keep-in-touch program to ensure consistency in the level of support across all offices. Governed by HR, the program helps ensure that the individual and their supervisor communicate before, during and after parental leave.

  2. Support for individuals and partners through return-to-work, coaching and mentoring, and pre-parental leave coaching. 

  3. A free childcare referral service to help employees find the right childcare. Expert referral consultants do all the research, which takes some of the stress out of finding a placement. 
  4. Employees on paid parental leave should be included in annual salary, bonus and promotion reviews and continue to receive superannuation payments during the period of leave.
  5. Prenatal leave, so employees can attend appointments associated with their pregnancy.
  6. 24 months’ leave, with 13 weeks at full pay (which can be taken flexibly) for primary carers, alongside parental leave entitlements for secondary carers, to ensure both parents experience the early parts of their children’s live.

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