Chapter 4: Experiences of employers in managing pregnancy, parental leave and return to work after parental leave

In summary

Employers identified several challenges in managing pregnancy/return to work issues, including:

  • Confusion and uncertainty about their legal obligations, and about employee rights
  • Managing the uncertainty that can surround pregnancy/return to work issues, especially regarding timeframes, employees’ return to work and employees’ requests to work flexibly or part-time
  • Limiting the direct costs associated with training a temporary replacement employee
  • Accommodating the specific needs of pregnant employees and employees returning from parental leave and ensuring a safe working environment. This was particularly an issue in highly physical industries or roles
  • Deeply held negative stereotypes, attitudes and behaviours among managers, line managers and other staff about pregnant employees, parents returning to work after parental leave and flexible work.
 
 

 

Through the consultations and online written submissions employers reported a number of challenges they faced in managing pregnancy/return to work.

The National Review heard that the experiences of employers varied depending on their circumstances, including the size of business, industry and sector.

The National Review heard that small businesses may face particular issues, ranging from lack of resources and capacity to manage working parents, to financial constraints, and difficulties managing parental leave or transferring an employee to a safe job.

4.1 Understanding employer obligations

In order to offer and implement comprehensive pregnancy/return to work policies, as well as a positive experience for employees who seek to use these policies, employers agreed that having an accurate and detailed understanding of their legal responsibilities and employee rights was critical. However, the National Review heard that, for various reasons, including the plethora of regulation in this area, organisations are often unsure as to what these obligations are.

Depending on where the organisation is based, there are several applicable legal jurisdictions that impact on an employer’s obligations in this area, including anti-discrimination laws (federal and state and territory); employment law; and work health and safety regulations (federal and state and territory). Multiple legal jurisdictions can cause confusion and uncertainty about which laws apply in which circumstances and what employers need to do to comply with all their obligations.

The first issue [for employers] is understanding their obligations and entitlements for the employee, to ensure they handle parental leave in the correct manner according to legislation.[478]

[We receive constant feedback] that there is currently a lot of ‘red-tape’ that employers/business owners have to deal with. As we can see with the laws that govern pregnancy and return to work, there are at least three pieces of legislation that businesses need to be familiar with to understand their obligations in this area.[479]

Employers spoke about the multiple demands on their time and identified that, in focusing on running their organisation, they have limited time to read multiple pieces of legislation to learn how the laws in this area impact on their operations. This is particularly the case for small organisations that commonly do not have a human resources department or legal expertise. As a result, employers may fail to fulfil their legal obligations, either because they are not aware of them, or because they simply do not understand them.

[M]ost of the shortcomings obviously have just been a lack of education. In fact, I think most employers get it wrong because they just don’t know.[480]

While most employers understand that pregnant employees are generally entitled to parental leave, they do not appreciate the detail such as notice requirements, keeping in touch, flexible working arrangements on return to work, obligations in relation to replacement workers, etc.[481]

Finally, employers told the National Review that there is a lack of clear, easily accessible information available, as well as more tailored advice. They reported a need for a ‘step by step’ guide and a user-friendly ‘one-stop-shop’ for information about rights and responsibilities relating to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work.

[I] started with google to search paid parental leave when an employee said she was pregnant.[482]

We have not had training or support other than what can be found on the Internet. We rely on keeping up to date through websites like Fairwork [Ombudsman/Commission].[483]

I think [small organisations] need somewhere to get advice from that is reliable and is really straight forward ... like black and white, hard to misinterpret, or a hotline so they can talk to a real person who can interpret [the laws] and apply it to their situation.[484]

 

The National Review finds that accessible, comprehensive information (covering all relevant legal jurisdictions) on employer obligations and employee rights relating to pregnancy, parental leave and on return to work after parental leave, needs to be developed and disseminated. The dissemination should include tailored formats for small organisations.

4.2 Balancing competing demands

Employers reported that it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the needs of employees with the needs of the organisation.

You’re in a very tough environment, a very competitive environment, where you’re absolutely having a hell of a lot of pressure coming down on you globally on costs. So it’s a balancing act and I think it’s what creates the difficulty.[485]

Employers have to do a risk analysis on whether or not to invest in retaining and supporting the needs of an employee [who is pregnant or on parental leave].[486]

Another issue raised was that Key Performance Indicators for managers are often based on organisational performance (such as output or sales targets), which are required to be met within a workforce planning structure based on ‘headcount’ (rather than ‘fulltime equivalent’ positions). This limits the capacity of managers to include part-time workers within a workforce structure they require to meet their targets.

Further, some employers reported that whilst they supported pregnant and flexible workers, their clients may not be familiar or comfortable with dealing with multiple contact points or people within an organisation. Therefore, it may be difficult to allocate to these clients to workers who may need to go on parental leave or work flexibly.

4.3 Managing parental leave

(a) Operating under uncertainty

With the best intentions in the world not to discriminate in any way, how can you avoid being concerned: How am I going to run this company and meet my objectives in the next year or two?[487]

Uncertainty of any type is difficult for business operations and staffing.[488]

[E]mployers are forced to guess when employees are returning, and [under] what arrangement.[489]

The National Review heard that employers find it challenging to operate with the uncertainty of the terms of the parental leave taken by employees, including in relation to:

  • the length of parental leave that the employee will take
  • whether the employee will return to work following parental leave
  • what sort of work arrangement the employee will request upon return from parental leave
  • whether an employee returning from parental leave will stay or leave after a short period.

These challenges are exacerbated in situations where there are pre-existing problems in the employer/employee dynamics.

Conversations that are difficult are the ones where the relationship is already [strained]...[and the] manager’s struggling to cope with [the] dynamic.[490]

Even when issues are discussed and agreed upon, employers may still face the uncertainty of not knowing if an employee will be able to fulfill the agreement or will change their mind.

What happens when employees say they don’t think they’re coming back but aren’t 100% sure and don’t want to give you a formal resignation letter?[491]

[I] feel cheated that [I] accommodated the needs [of a pregnant employee] and held a fulltime position for somebody that ends up leaving.[492]

However, the National Review also heard that good communication between employers and employees can assist greatly in reducing the issues of uncertainty. This was particularly the case in small organisations, where due to the small number of staff, there can be a close connection between the employer and employee, enabling more thorough communication and consultation.

  • (a) Backfilling during parental leave

The first thing is that you try to be very excited on behalf of the person who’s telling you [that they are pregnant]. Secretly what you’re [thinking] is how the hell am I going to replace this person for the next year?[493]

Employers told the National Review that they have two options: backfill internally or recruit externally, and both options pose challenges.

Some employers noted that when backfilling internally, either an additional workload is placed on employees with existing fulltime responsibilities, or roles and functions are at risk of being neglected.

Typically, when employees are replaced there is still [an] additional workload on existing staff.[494]

We are a small business and the burden on other workers, especially if they do not have the skills of the worker on [parental] leave, is stressful.[495]

In a business with five to ten employees, the person taking parental leave commonly is the only person with the required skills and qualifications for a particular role. [This makes] it difficult for tasks and duties to be reallocated to others during the period of parental leave.[496]

Several periods of consecutive parental leave can raise longer-term backfilling requirements, which may be difficult and costly to fill.

[An employee] was on [parental] leave three years straight...[this] was very disruptive.[497]

She’s had...consecutive pregnancies and she comes back and tells us, ‘Yeah I want that job I had four and a half years ago’, yet we’ve got this person who doesn’t quite get that we’re not the same business we were four and a half years ago and we don’t have that same job.[498]

In light of the short-term and sometimes uncertain timeframe of the backfill position, it can be difficult to find qualified individuals from external sources willing to accept a short-term engagement. Employers also told the National Review that managing the expectations of the replacement employee is often complicated since the duration of the position may be unknown.

[Replacement employees] have no rights in terms of their employment obligations because if “Jo Blow” says [they] want to come back [after their parental leave] then we have to get rid of [the replacement] and let [them] come back.[499]

The biggest difficulties are in recruiting suitable staff especially for professional roles with specific requirements and the uncertainty of when or if the person on parental leave will return.[500]

Our main challenge with parental leave is where an employee wishes to take a short absence - for example five months. As a small business it is difficult to cover such an absence.[501]

Some employers explained that training and up-skilling the replacement (internal or external) can also be difficult, especially training casual or short-term employees for highly skilled roles.

Specialist academics – [We] can’t replace them or [they are] expensive to source from interstate - the research stops while they are on leave.[502]

At one of our centres, there’s a six month training required to do the job. The investment in training means there are no casual people. Most people don’t want it because of the amount of training required.[503]

Employers reported that when there are several employees on parental leave at the same time, these positions can be more difficult to backfill. There may be no additional individuals in the organisation to step in and cover the absences internally, and recruiting multiple short-term replacements externally can be timely and costly, especially if the positions are high-skilled roles.

[If] we had a number of...mums go off at the same time, that could really impact [the organisation] and [filling the positions] would be then something serious that you would have to consider.[504]

[They’re] all falling pregnant at the same time which creates ... a problem for the business...[We’d] love to accommodate [them] all, but how do we do it?[505]

Employers told the National Review that the notice requirements for employees wishing to return to work is insufficient for planning. Under the FWA the notice period for return to work after parental leave is four weeks.

The Act is constructed so that employees can make a decision as to when and how they want to return...but includes little obligation for the employee to actually think about how and when they will return, in advance...[which would give] the employer sufficient time to [make arrangements].[506]

  • (b) Costs

Employers also reported that they often face direct costs associated with backfilling or recruiting a replacement to cover employees on parental leave.

Employers identified costs such as additional workload on Human Resources administrators, the cost of recruiting replacement staff, costs of paying casual rates to attract a short-term replacement or to attract a highly qualified replacement for a short period.

Employers relayed to the National Review that a Human Resources member (or owner/manager in the case of small organisations with no Human Resources department) must dedicate time to planning for the parental leave with the employee, identifying replacement staff, whether internal or external, and ensuring a smooth transition. This may include, for example, the recruitment process, training, equipment handover, new email addresses and business cards.

Training for replacement staff, including handover periods, can also be an added expense. The National Review was told that in some cases this can be a loss-incurring exercise when the costs of training are higher than the value added by the replacement.

As our positions require specific training and qualifications by the time you train someone, the parental leave period has expired and you do not get value for money.[507]

In a small business, which specialises in the design, manufacture and retail of jewellery, it takes a long period of time to train employees to the level required – at least six months for an experienced individual and at least one year for an inexperienced person. This makes it unfeasible to train another individual for the term of parental leave.[508]

You’ve got your wind up and wind down when people are going on leave. You’re not going to give them new referrals because they’re about to go on leave next week. Their caseloads are getting lower, so they’re not able to be bring in as much revenue as what they normally would, so...it’s not just the paid salaries, it’s the lack of income during that time that really hits us.[509]

Employers reported that there can also be costs associated with administering the government Paid Parental Leave (PPL) and Dad and Partner Pay schemes, as well as any employer paid parental leave schemes.

Some of the challenges are the collection of Paid Parental Leave. At the moment the forms that need to be filled in are too long and the payments take too much time for an employer to administer.[510]

[Government] Paid Parental Leave is paid fortnightly. This doesn’t work for small business that pays weekly.[511]

Payroll systems have to be adjusted...however a few small businesses don’t know that they need to adjust their systems.[512]

However, other employers reported that registering for and administering the PPL scheme was not overly demanding. The PPL Evaluation Phase Two Report revealed that the majority of employers did not find administering the scheme difficult or costly.[513]

While some costs were identified with accommodating employees on parental leave, the National Review found that research has also shown that there are financial and other benefits to retaining employees following parental leave, including retaining their skills and corporate knowledge (see Chapter 1).

  • (c) Managing the employee while on leave

Although there may be no intention to discriminate against employees on parental leave, the National Review heard that discrimination may still occur if the parental leave is not appropriately managed.

Some employers struggle to maintain contact with employees who are on leave for an extended period of time. The practical reality is often ‘out of sight, out of mind’, with employers unintentionally failing to maintain contact and keep the employee updated on events and changes in the workplace.

Not inviting people to Christmas parties or keeping them in the loop is often just an oversight without any ill intent...It’s about the fact that we just have to change the mindset and process which will prompt people to think about getting back in touch.[514]

Some employers said they may be unsure of the degree to which an employee on leave wants to ‘be bothered by work’ during parental leave. Even where there may be an agreement in place to stay in touch, some employees don’t always use the opportunities to keep in contact.

It is not uncommon that...employees on parental leave wish to keep any contact with their employer to a minimum.[515]

It is challenging to ensure the employee does not lose touch with the workplace or the industry as they have other priorities...It is not uncommon that parents want to focus on their child rather than keep in touch with the workplace.[516]

Long period of parental leave without consistent communication may pose challenges when the employee returns to work.

Some of the biggest challenges are ensuring that any company wide changes are effectively communicated to those on parental leave so they are aware of decisions that have been made that will impact them on their return.[517]

The National Review heard that, in situations where there is a positive working relationship between the employee and employer, including good and ongoing communications and a high degree of trust, many of the challenges related to managing leave can be addressed.

(e) Redundancies in the context of parental leave

Employers told the National Review that where during parental leave, genuine restructures or redundancies are made, it is important that employees on parental leave are not disadvantaged by the restructure.

[A challenge] experienced by employers includes managing situations where the position of an employee on parental leave becomes genuinely redundant. In such circumstances the original position held by the employee no longer exists.[518]

Small businesses tend to restructure as a result of an employee taking parental leave and then invariably discover that they no longer need the person to do the job in the same way as they previously did. While they may not be making the position redundant...there may be a perception that they have deliberately altered the working environment to disadvantage them.[519]

As set out in Chapter 6, some organisations are putting in place checks and balances to ensure that there is no disproportionate impact on employees on parental leave.

4.4 Managing other leave during pregnancy and on return to work

Pregnant employees may need to take sick leave or personal leave for pregnancy-related medical issues on several occasions during their pregnancy. Such leave is often unpredictable and therefore difficult to plan for.

Further, as the circumstances pertaining to the medical leave are often personal and confidential, employers said that they can sometimes face challenges having conversations with employees and planning for the leave from a management perspective.

Employers also told the National Review that they needed direction and support in having productive and sensitive conversations regarding pregnancy-related medical leave.

[It’s the issue] of what are you allowed to ask, what aren’t you allowed to ask?[520]

Employers reported that such conversations are even more difficult in the context of issues such as IVF and miscarriage. There is a widespread lack of knowledge among managers and Human Resources personnel about how to conduct conversations concerning such circumstances. The personal and confidential nature of these issues makes frank discussions difficult.

People who are on IVF within [the] workforce don’t really want to talk about it. [It’s very hard] when you have to ask for permission [to take time off] without wanting to specify exactly why.[521]

Miscarriage has been a taboo topic for so long, employers don’t know how to deal with it.[522]

[Miscarriage] I think it needs to be taken on a case by case basis because some people...want to take the time off to grieve...but others just want to get back straight into it. So it’s hard to...have a blanket policy.[523]

Employers also told the National Review that after an employee has returned from parental leave, they may need to take personal/carers leave on several occasions to care for their child, particularly if the child is in an early childhood education and care services and may tend to get sick more often.

Some staff spend more time at home with sick kids than they do at work especially in the first year, even if [they are working] part-time.[524]

4.5 Challenges of implementing flexible work

  • (a) Managing the part-time/flexible worker

Employers told the National Review that accommodating flexible work can pose a significant challenge. Many managers often do not fully understand what flexible work means or how it works.

Flexibility [is] still seen as part of the ‘too hard’ basket.[525]

What’s more, managing a part-time/flexible worker can be perceived as difficult for several reasons. First, negotiating work arrangements requires open and honest communication on both sides. This can be challenging if employees feel reluctant to share their requests for flexible work upon return to work for fear of appearing uncommitted to their job.

Similarly, employers may be reluctant to outline the organisation’s needs, for fear of alienating the employee or failing to meet their legal obligations. When the needs on both sides do not perfectly align, it can sometimes be difficult for employers to manage employee expectations appropriately.

[Employees] come at you with ‘what they’ve heard’ or ‘group think’ information that’s not necessarily accurate and you as the employer [must try] to reset their expectations to [the] reality [of flexible work options] and that can be a real problem.[526]

There is this real...apprehension perhaps to approach an employer about flexible work arrangements, [parental leave], or return to work. So people then go around, seek all their advice from well informed family members and friends and union reps or whatever else, and come in almost a bit ‘guns blazing’ rather than having a conversation...Most employers’ intentions at least [are] to do the right things.[527]

There is a distinct difference in employees between their expectations. Some people come back with a high expectation of ‘I’m entitled to this and you’re going to give it to me,’ versus the person that says ‘actually I’m part of this organisation.’[528]

Secondly, employers told the National Review that flexible work requires a high degree of trust and reciprocity between the employee and the manager. There is a danger that the manager or employee feels that they are being taken advantage of through the work arrangement.

Trust is an issue – the business needs to feel confident that the employee will not abuse the trust of flexibility.[529]

[Flexible arrangements] only work because [I have] absolute trust in that particular person...[I] would not be able to allow such flexibility with every member of [the] team. [I need to] trust [that they] will deliver regardless of where [they] work from.[530]

Employers noted how such issues can also manifest with regard to performance management in the context of flexible work. Cases of poor performance which are not managed well by line managers as they arise can become an issue after an individual returns from parental leave and requests flexible work. If a poor performer returns from parental leave and requests flexible work, the manager may struggle to approve the request because there is a lower level of trust.

The trouble is [when performance issues are] only raised [when pregnancy is announced]. That then becomes a discrimination issue and that’s when it could have been dealt with earlier.[531]

These challenges can be overcome if managers confront performance issues in a timely and efficient manner. If poor performance is addressed swiftly and appropriately, it should not have an impact on the employee’s return to work subsequently.

  • (b) Challenges related to specific industries

The National Review heard that there are structural impediments that have not yet been addressed in some industries that make part-time/flexible work arrangements difficult for some employers. These could include the nature of work or schedule limitations within the organisation. For example,

[In a legal environment] it’s about the billable hours. The more you are available the more you add value...[A] person who is there just three days a week doesn’t get the juicy work because it’s easier to give that work to someone who can work around the clock, five days a week. Some people come back and feel that they aren’t getting the good stuff.[532]

  • (c) Challenges related to specific roles

Some employers reported that some roles are hard to perform in a part-time/flexible capacity. For example, employers explained that customer facing/sales roles can be difficult to perform flexibly when client demands are unpredictable and immediate. The concern is that there may be an impact on the customer experience, or the customer will have expectations that cannot be met regarding timing and/or availability.

In Australia we all assume the ideal worker is someone who’s available 24/7 [with] no caring responsibilities.[533]

In other cases, employers said that some roles traditionally require a minimum amount of time to complete. This can mean that unless a jobshare arrangement can be made, it may be difficult to accommodate part-time or flexible requests. This is common in manufacturing roles.

In a manufacturing environment, you have to think about productivity. There is no flexibility at manager level to redefine the time it takes for output...You may be able to accommodate someone working on a different task which is flexible but if [it relates to] your core work...it wouldn’t enhance productivity to have flexible arrangements.[534]

 

  • (d) Challenges for the organisation

Employers told the National Review that flexible work can sometimes pose added challenges to an organisation’s operations. Where flexible work results in a significant number of people working from home, this can impact on maintaining regular interactions between colleagues and with customers. It can also affect general workforce camaraderie.

[The] pendulum swung a bit too far. [There were] too many people working from home and [this caused] team building issues. [We needed] to have conversations about needs and expectations.[535]

It is only government and large organisations that can accommodate workplace flexibility, not the majority of Australian employers...who need consistency in roles to keep the organisation alive.[536]

Some employers also noted that productivity may suffer if colleagues are bearing an extra workload as the result of an employee working part-time.

All of our female employees who have come back from parental leave have asked for and been granted permanent part-time work. This results in additional people being employed or other employees absorbing some of the workload.[537]

When an employee is coming back from maternity leave and [requests] to work part-time, this means that we are missing [somebody to cover] the other days [when they are not in the office], which has a huge effect on productivity.[538]

  • (e) Challenges related to shift work or rosters

Flexible work may present a unique challenge in cases of shift work or rosters. It can be difficult to accommodate flexibility if the hours requested are less than what the organisation needs.

If you have one person who wants to do shorter shifts, someone has to do longer shifts. Legislation around [the] right to request makes it an absolute headache for the manager. If there aren’t enough resources to do the work and we don’t meet the deadline, we get penalised. There is reputational damage etc. It’s a knock-on effect.[539]

At the health service there [are] very set shifts and it’s sort of a 7am to 3pm shift. Working parents [may] request school hours, to work from 9am to 3pm. In theory, yes, there [are] patients here [to attend to], but what do you do from 7am until 9am when you’ve had someone working night shift? They can’t stay another two hours, you’ve got minimum engagement periods of four hours.[540]

Furthermore, some rosters require fulltime work for certain periods, followed by breaks (for example four weeks on, one week off), particularly in industries that work in remote areas and through ‘fly-in/fly-out’ arrangements. This can make accommodating flexible work arrangements difficult.

[With] site based roles we are talking four weeks away, one week home...The issue of a partner and a family...that’s really where we have an issue with return to work...[The opportunity for] flexibility is really site based.[541]

Even if you move somebody to live on-site...their partner might not be able to find work on-site.[542]

Some employers highlighted that catering for the demands of flexible workers in rosters/shift work can cause resentment from other employees and complaints regarding unfair preferential treatment.

Everyone wants the morning shift. [It] creates questions and raised eyebrows when those requiring [flexibility] always get it. It is meant to be a rotating roster.[543]

While there is a strong business case for accommodating flexibility and retaining employees who take parental leave, organisational systems and structures need to be in place to support managers to do this. As will be outlined in Chapter 6, the National Review learnt through consultations about some of the policies and initiatives which help to enable successful flexible work arrangements. These include flexibility coaching for managers; promoting flexible work models by showcasing senior role models who work flexibly; and leveraging technology to support flexible work (for example lap tops, smart phones, video conferencing).

4.6 Managing health and safety issues

  • (a) Finding a safe role

A few employers told the National Review that they may find it difficult to find alternative duties for pregnant employees if the role involves some exposure to health and safety risks, particularly in specific industries or occupations.

Finding alternative duties is particularly challenging when the industry is generally physically demanding.

In a store, it's a physical job where you're on your feet all day every day. With only one or two people per store in some instances, there is next to no opportunity for alternate or light duties.[544]

Acute nursing care requires nurses to be able to undertake clinical care and light or clerical duties don’t work.[545]

A major challenge faced by electrical contracting businesses is the limited safe work options available for pregnant female electricians. This is particularly problematic for micro businesses that may only employ one or two electricians and perform the administrative side of the business themselves or engage a family member.[546]

Organisations with few administrative roles can struggle to accommodate the safe work needs of pregnant employees.

One such case occurred in a small to medium sized business where a pregnant casual employee provided a medical certificate to state she was unable to lift cartons of wine. This proved to be problematic for the employer because the employee was engaged to work in the [wine cellar] door (ie customer sales), where lifting cartons of wine is an inherent part of the role. The employer liaised with the employee to try to find alternative duties, but was unable to provide sufficient work or alternative duties to maintain the hours that were similar to the average weekly hours that the employee had previously been working.[547]

We do not have very many administration positions that people can be shifted into and even then most people are not qualified to fulfill those positions.[548]

The challenge of finding safe alternative roles is particularly acute for small businesses that may have a limited number of roles and employees.

Finally, a few employers told the National Review that there are instances where a pregnant employee wants to continue their job but employers are concerned about the health and safety risks. This may cause tension and conflict if the employer places the employee in an alternative role or on ‘no safe job’ leave where this may not be the preference of the employee.

  • (b) Providing facilities for breastfeeding/expressing

The National Review heard that many employers struggle to provide a work environment that provide for women to breastfeed or express in privacy. This is particularly the case in workshops, worksites, or retail shop floors, where there is no physical space to accommodate privacy and other requirements.

I couldn’t even [imagine what I’d do] if I had a staff member who was...breastfeeding. What I would do in a workshop environment? Like where would they go?[549]

But a lot of the trouble is space, and in our case we’re bursting at the seams, we don’t have any spare space.[550]

The whole place is just filthy. It’s just grease everywhere...You wouldn’t chuck them in the toilets [or] the lunch rooms upstairs on the men’s deck...It’s just physically not possible.[551]

Overall, the National Review found that employers need further guidance and support on how to accommodate the health and safety needs of pregnant employees and employees returning to work from parental leave.

4.7 Organisational culture: stereotypes, attitudes and behaviours

  • (a) Stereotypes, attitudes and behaviours of managers

Employers reported that a key obstacle to implementing successful policies was ingrained stereotypes, attitudes and behaviours in the workplace, particularly among line managers.

As a result, organisations and employees alike may be dependent upon a ‘management lottery’ where the success of policies is influenced by individual managers’ assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Lack of awareness and knowledge of obligations and skills to implement policies can also contribute to gaps between laws and policies and actual practice.

Some managers do it well, some don’t[552]

[Success is] dependent on your own relationship with your manager, and their own personal views on flexible arrangements.[553]

Conscious and/or unconscious bias among managers about pregnancy, parental leave, and flexible work can lead to discriminatory behaviour. Managers may lower an employee’s workload, for example, due to the false assumption that a pregnant woman cannot handle extra stress or perform as well as others.

Nothing gets done in the last 6 months [of pregnancy].[554]

Unconsciously, managers start writing off people because they won’t be there [during parental leave].[555]

Employers told the National Review that managers may need training on their obligations with regard to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work, as well as the organisation’s policies.

Many organisations still face a strong culture of ‘presenteeism’ and are reluctant to accept that flexible workers can be productive.

Managers [don’t want] to provide flexible working arrangements for employees returning to work and try...to find ways around it so the employee has to return fulltime.[556]

[We have] flexible working arrangements...and support from senior management. But the middle managers are still difficult. We had one this week say, ’there’s no way the caseworker can be part-time.’ We are really working on getting middle management to think outside the box. They are just so reactive. It’s about getting them to think through the options and showing them how it can be done.[557]

  • (b) Organisational culture

The National Review heard that, as with managers, bias and resentment among colleagues may exist. Organisational culture can impact on the success of pregnancy, parental leave and return to work policies if it does not promote an accepting and supportive environment for pregnant women and parents.

The bigger issue for us is this overall cultural and gender bias.[558]

Different arrangements, such as work from home, flexible hours etc. during [pregnancy/return to work] tend to upset others who would like the same consideration but have no 'case' to justify this.[559]

There are high levels of resentment apparently coming from other staff who feel like the pregnant employee gets a free ride, ‘not pulling their weight’, and that they have to pick up the slack.[560]

The National Review found that information, training and coaching regarding return to work and flexible/part-time work is required for managers and employees.

Managers, as well as employees, need to be supported by structures and an organisational culture which can help them implement successful pregnancy/return to work policies. In addition, establishing structures which encourage managers to prioritise the implementation of policies, and linking this to Key Performance Indicators are equally important.

4.8 Conclusion

The National Review was keen to hear from employers about the issues and pressures they face when managing pregnancy, parental leave and return to work.

On occasion, there may be tensions between the needs of pregnant employees and parents returning to work and an organisation’s operational requirements. Given the business imperative to ensure women’s equal participation in paid work, the vast majority of employers understand the importance of finding a way through.

A first step to reducing discrimination is identifying competing demands and working together to ensure both the employer and employee can implement effective policies and practices for pregnancy, parental leave and return to work, while continuing to achieve organisational goals and output.

While some of the obstacles identified are external to organisations, there can be many internal barriers. It is these internal issues that organisations are able to tackle themselves - such as lack of awareness of employer obligations, lack of training for managers, wrongful stereotyping about pregnancy and flexible work, and unsupportive workplace cultures.

As much as this chapter reflects the pressures and hurdles that Australian employers face, the following chapter highlights the strong and pragmatic leadership from organisations in overcoming these challenges. Chapter 6 outlines successful initiatives and policies developed for the benefit of employees and employers alike. These leading practice approaches are based on providing support to managers and employees by providing information and training or coaching, as well as by ensuring that processes are standardised, to create a workplace supportive of work and family.


[478] Employer submission no. 4 (HR Business Direction).
[479] Employer submission no. 8 (South Australian Wine Industry Association Inc).
[480] Consultation 1K (Employers).
[481] Employer submission no. 4 (HR Business Direction).
[482] Consultation 8B (Employers).
[483] Employer questionnaire no. 18.
[484] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[485] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[486] Consultation 3C (Employers).
[487] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[488] Employer questionnaire no. 3.
[489] Consultation 4C (Employers).
[490] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[491] Consultation 8B (Employers).
[492] Consultation 3C (Employers).
[493] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[494] Employer questionnaire no. 32.
[495] Employer questionnaire no. 20.
[496] Employer submission no. 7 (Business SA).
[497] Consultation 6A (Employers).
[498] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[499] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[500] Employer questionnaire no. 30.
[501] Employer questionnaire no. 17.
[502] Consultation 6A (Employers).
[503] Consultation 1A (Employers).
[504] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[505] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[506] Employer questionnaire no. 7.
[507] Employer questionnaire no. 17.
[508] Employer questionnaire no. 33.
[509] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[510] Employer submission no. 2.
[511] Consultation 3C (Employers).
[512] Consultation 8B (Employers).
[513] University of Queensland, Paid Parental Leave Evaluation: Phase 2 Report (January 2013), p 124-125.
[514] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[515] Employer submission no. 7 (Business SA).
[516] Employer questionnaire no. 32.
[517] Employer questionnaire no. 4.
[518] Employer submission no. 5 (Australian Industry Group).
[519] Employer submission no. 1 (Master Electricians Australia).
[520] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[521] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[522] Consultation 6A (Employers).
[523] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[524] Employer questionnaire no. 30.
[525] Consultation 1R (Employers).
[526] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[527] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[528] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[529] Consultation 1C (Employers).
[530] Consultation 5B (Employers).
[531] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[532] Consultation 1B (Employers).
[533] Consultation 8E (Employers).
[534] Consultation 1A (Employers).
[535] Consultation 1R (Employers).
[536] Employer questionnaire no. 14.
[537] Employer questionnaire no. 8.
[538] Employer questionnaire no. 26.
[539] Consultation 1A (Employers).
[540] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[541] Consultation 5B (Employers).
[542] Consultation 5B (Employers).
[543] Consultation 4C (Employers).
[544] Employer questionnaire no. 12.
[545] Employer questionnaire no. 13.
[546] Employer submission no. 1 (Master Electricians Australia).
[547] Employer submission no. 8 (South Australian Wine Industry Association Inc).
[548] Employer questionnaire no. 18.
[549] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[550] Consultation 1K (Employers).
[551] Consultation 1O (Employers).
[552] Consultation 5B (Employers).
[553] Consultation 5B (Employers).
[554] Consultation 8B (Employers).
[555] Consultation 1B (Employers).
[556] Employer submission no. 6 (Australian Human Resources Institute).
[557] Consultation 1B (Employers).
[558] Consultation 2D (Employers).
[559] Employer questionnaire no. 11.
[560] Consultation 8B (Employers).