Australia is currently one of only two countries part of the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) without a national paid parental leave scheme (the other is the US).

But all that’s about to change. On January 1, 2011, Australia will finally catch up with the rest of the world when the government delivers our first national Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme, offering 18 weeks of government funded paid leave. It’ll be available to parents for births and adoptions that occur on or after that date and has been described by the government as:

“… an historic reform to prepare Australia for the challenges of the future. The government scheme will provide greater financial support to families, increase workforce participation and promote early childhood development.”

The scheme aims to encourage women to maintain their connection with the workforce and their careers – and it is essential to help prepare Australia for the challenges of an ageing population. Business and employers will, in addition to signalling that the company is family-friendly and values female staff, benefit from the retention of skilled and experienced female staff, increase employee loyalty and promote higher staff retention rates.

Currently, only one third of Australian women with children have benefitted from some level of PPL from their (then) employers – so the introduction of 18 weeks of paid leave will be a huge change for many companies.

Although the onus will be on the pregnant woman (who will need to have been employed for at least a year) to apply for the PPL, employers need to think about how they’ll create and manage an appropriate working environment for these valued members of staff before, during and after they go out on leave.

Here are some ideas of how you can support and engage your pregnant employees so that your policies and paid parental leave are integrated and offer a positive experience:

Before the leave starts:

  • Make your staff member aware of what existing flexible working options are available to her in the firm – is telecommuting, working part-time or working compressed hours an option that she may wish to consider upon her return?
  • What other forms of support do you have available – or do you need to create?
  • Who else could she speak to who’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt and come back to work afterwards?
  • What resources might you need to call upon to support your staff before, during and after their PPLs?
  • Sit down with her and ask her about her plans at this stage. Encourage her to consider her stakeholders, colleagues and customers, and to think flexibly.

Whilst she’s away:

  • Keep in touch per her pre-agreed contact plan: this may be contact with a nominated person, via email only or whatever else you’ve previously discussed and agreed.
  • Bear in mind that, dependent upon the nature of the situation, she may wish to flex or change these arrangements; some new mums find they crave the adult contact of the office world, others want to withdraw completely and enjoy their new arrival. Be sensitive and aware that PPL can be a moveable feast…

When she’s due to come back:

  • Have a confidential and supportive conversation as to her future plans. Will she be returning at the end of the mandated 18 week period, or sooner (and perhaps transferring the unused portion of leave to her partner) or later? Bear in mind that, again, these plans may have changed from the ones you discussed a few months ago.
  • Discuss flexible working options, if available and appropriate. What can the company do to ease the transition back to the workplace? What resources are available to help her? Do you, for example, have a ‘mentoring mums’ network which can assist with transitioning back?
  • Consider how her role, the environment and the team may have changed in her absence. Do you need to set new performance-related goals and objectives, either because of in-house changes or to accommodate a changed working schedule?

These efforts will be worth it in terms of what you’ll reap in employee engagement, knowledge of your customer base and the continuing commitment of your female staff.

In a recent Emberin survey, we spoke to working mums on a popular social networking site and they told us that these are the top 10 benefits they believe they contribute to their employers:

  1. Relevant skills, talent and customer knowledge: “I’ve been here for 10 years and I know so much…”
  2. Employee investment: in terms of time and money spent on recruitment, training and intellectual capital.
  3. Increased efficiency and time management: when you only work part time and/or need to leave on the dot, every second counts!
  4. And similarly: Catherine, a mum of three under fives, told us that her ability to multi-task has improved 100 fold since having children, a hugely important skill in her role as the manager of a busy call-centre.
  5. Having a baby has done wonders for my confidence”, confided Laurette. “So I’m now much happier to take the lead on key projects on work and I’ve been promoted twice since I came back.”
  6. Working from home can often save money and resources in terms of desk space and other city centre overheads – meaning that telecommuting (not only used by mums, of course) can be a real cost cutter.
  7. Lynda shared that she hopes to have a long career in science – and that she viewed it as a marathon, not a sprint! So taking a brief period out from time to time didn’t mean the end to her goals or her support for the company – it was just that – a break, not the end of the race.
  8. We heard a lot about loyalty to the company for making it possible to continue working in an interesting, flexible and well-paid environment – working mums can often be your strongest brand ambassadors!
  9. I’m a great role model to other women in the company”, suggested Rachel. “They look at me and see that it is possible to work here, be successful and still be a great mum too.”
  10. And finally – patience. Lots of our surveyed mums told us that they’re much less inclined to “sweat the small stuff” once they’re back at work, which they feel contributes to a calmer and more relaxed working environment – great for everyone!