#03: It's OK to "work" while on parental leave

Nov 1, 2023

E3 Danielle - podcast feed 

About The Episode

Should new parents be allowed to do work while on parental leave? 

This is a very controversial topic, but the reason we’re talking about it is because there's a clear disconnect between what employees actually want and what companies are doing.

And after working with thousands of employees through parental leave, we’ve found two very important things:

1) There is a big difference between working while on leave and staying in touch with work while on leave

2) The overwhelming majority of people we work with say connecting with work was the most helpful thing to support their re-onboarding experience after their leave

The problem is most companies and managers are terrified by this concept - the thought of violating policies that prohibit working while on parental leave has led many companies to actually shut down email access to try to discourage any form of it.

And we totally get why. 

Aside from the legal aspect, they want to encourage employees to fully focus on their families - but what if we told you that it’s possible to do both?

In this episode, Allison welcomes Danielle Pickens, a Parentaly coach and mom-of-three to talk about working while on parental leave.

We unpack what we mean by working during parental leave, when and why it can be beneficial to the employee and how we coach parents through this decision to work or stay in touch while they're on parental leave. 

Links & Resources

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Allison Whalen (AW): I am excited today to talk to Danielle Pickens about whether parent employees should work while they are on parental leave. This is kind of a funny question that is very niche and maybe very specific. 

The reason that I wanted to discuss this with you, Danielle, is that it is one of the most powerful questions and topics that come up over the course of our Parentaly coaching. It is the thing that we consistently get feedback when we ask for feedback from people who go through our program of what was really helpful. They point to documenting their communication preferences and being more thoughtful about if they will have any sort of communication while they're on leave. They always talk about how that's really valuable. 

It is one of the most controversial things that when I talk to HR leaders, they get terrified. And I understand why they're terrified about it. And so I find this fascinating because it seems like there is a little bit of a disconnect between what we see works and what is slightly controversial and maybe even I'd add a third thing to the mix which is very difficult to do in practice. 

And so we have a million things that I want to dive into. I am going to start with the most broad question of do you think that people should work while they are on leave? 

Danielle Pickens (DP): I love this question because I don't think that there is a right answer. I really think it depends on you, your personal preferences. What do you even mean by work? Some people opening up their laptop and just checking their email doesn't necessarily feel like work. You know, some people, if they have to put together a presentation, that feels like work to them. 

So that to me is probably one of the most essential questions. It's like, what do you even mean by work? Is it just like, ‘Hey, keep me updated, let me know what's happening, keep me informed?’ Or is it like, ‘I really need to think about something and write something down for you?’

That would be how I would answer it. There isn't a right way. 

AW: Let me put it this way, if someone comes to you and they say, ‘I'm really, I'm unsure about what I should do while I'm on leave and I've got all these things and I feel like I need to remain connected in some way’, where do you take that in a coaching session? 

DP: Well, I'll ask them kind of why are they doing that? What's behind that? What's the purpose and intention of them working or staying connected? Is it coming from a place of, ‘I kind of want to know or be informed of what's happening so that I can make my own plans.’? Is it coming from a place of like, ‘I feel like I need to be there and no one else can do this.’?

So I'll often ask an individual first and foremost, ‘Why are you feeling the need to work? Because there is a real upside in allowing other people to take things on while you're on leave.’ Right, like it allows them to grow, it allows you to step back, get some additional perspective, get some real presence with your baby. 

So for me, there can be this feeling of my team is really overworked. I feel guilty taking time away and they're wanting to work for that. But if they're wanting to work because, you know, they wanna keep something moving that they're really excited about. And to be honest with you, sometimes like there is work that you want to keep moving forward and you may not be able to talk about poop 24 hours a day when you have a baby. 

Here is what I will say. What I recommend for people who are having their first child is always promise less. You know, like if there's something that you really wanna ask me about, sure, fine. Do I want radio silence? That's okay too. You could always give more, but it's hard once you say like, I wanna be in total communication with you to pull back. So for your first child, always promise less.

I will tell you about my third child. Personally, I was like, I need something to keep my mind stimulated. This actually feels like a break from caring for three children.

AW: Yeah, it's so funny you put it that way. The way that I always put it is, build optionality and set the expectations as low as possible because you can always dive back in, but you can't always pull out. And so set the bar really, really low on what you will do, but if you can see what's happening in a way that you control, then you're able to decide in the moment because there's also this aspect, I totally agree with you. I think for your first child, oh my gosh, don't promise anything. You have no idea how you're gonna.

DP: You have no idea!

AW: Yeah. And even with my third child, I was still surprised. I mean, my plan with my third parental leave, which again, very different, I'm the CEO, founder. So it's a very different consideration when you're stepping out for parental leave at that level. 

But I had said I was going to keep Slack on, not to expect any response from me, but I was going to monitor things. In the hospital, 12 hours postpartum, I realized this was such a mistake. I thought I knew, I'm like, ‘Oh, it's my third kid, I know what I'm doing, it's gonna be easy, I've got a nanny, I've got my husband at home, I've got my parents around, I've got so much support.’

And I realized I could not turn off the work thoughts, and that that was really doing a disservice to myself, right? And so you can always change, too. That's the other thing that I talk a lot about is like if you realize you wanna be able to say, I made a mistake. 

DP: Yeah, I think that is really good thinking for parenthood generally is like, ‘I need to change things. This is not working.’ And so being flexible is really important. 

It's funny, I was just on a call a little while before this with a Parentaly coaching client. And I said, I was gonna be joining you for this topic. And I asked this parent what their biggest surprise or aha was.

And this person said, ‘I thought, well, maybe I'll think about work while I'm on leave. But I didn't think about it the whole time and it felt fine.’ So even sometimes the anxieties that you have before leave become totally different once you have that child in your arms and you can make different choices and just say, ‘You know what, everyone is gonna be okay. Things will be fine.’ 

AW: Yeah, totally. And I think you realize once you step away, it's kind of like on vacation where you leave on vacation. And the first few days you're thinking about work, thinking about work, and then by the end of the vacation, once you turn it off, you realize, ‘Oh, it's gone from my head.’

And I hate to even use the word vacation when I'm talking about parental leave, but it's a similar idea in that once you've shut it down, I think most people are surprised by how little they care about work. And that's a good thing. 

DP: Yeah, I think most people think, ‘Oh, I'm gonna be thinking about this all of the time.’ And I do think if you stay connected, it is harder to shut it off. So in the beginning, if they don't have any idea, I'll usually recommend for them to just have a blackout period of six to eight weeks and then see how they’re feeling.

If you're feeling like, ‘You know what, I want to understand what's been happening,’ then put a little toe in, maybe check your email, maybe talk with a friend who's at work, right? Sometimes it's just fun to get the gossip about what's happening at work.

But I really believe in giving yourself that time and space when your baby is first born to just be and allow yourself to be there. And then if you want, start to dip a toe back in. 

AW: Right. And I think just to pull back a little bit and provide some context around why even people should be working or be connected, the way that I always describe this when I talk to companies, where companies are taking this perspective of, ’We are giving this paid time off because we want you to completely focus on your family, shut down everything about work where you should not be in communication.’ 

Many companies actually shut down systems access so you don't even have access to your email. And they're coming from such a great place of doing this thing for [the employee’s] benefit. And what I always have to educate them on a little bit is I totally get that that is great intentions, but think about the potential unintended negative consequences that can come out of this. 

You're having someone step away for four, five, six months who deeply cares about their career trajectory, there may actually be things that it is in their best interest to be a part of, or at least hear about while they're on leave. And so what I always try to bring this back to is, all we care about is giving them agency and allowing them to make that choice within reason.

Now it's tough because I've worked with people who basically their plan is to work while on leave. And that, you know, yeah, I wanna give you agency, but that's also, we know not the right decision for most people. So that's where it gets a little bit tough. 

But I do wanna say the entire idea behind this is simply there are certain situations where it is good to have some sort of connection. I have pretty strong opinions about what those are, but I'm curious to hear from your experience coaching people. 

What are the things where you believe very deeply, yes, them being connected about this thing while they were on leave, if you could explain or give an example of how that meaningfully improves their return to work experience or ongoing career trajectory.

DP: Absolutely, well, first I just wanna say, I believe that companies should set the expectation that you shouldn't be working while you're on leave. Like otherwise why am I giving you leave? 

But I also believe in treating people like adults, right? Like you don't need to take away my system access. And I'll tell you, when people come back, they're like, ‘I can't even figure out how to set up my email again.’ 

So that's one thing that I would say: set the expectation. We don't expect you to be here, but don't lock everything down so tightly that it feels like this really negative experience for folks.

I think the situations in which I would see people being in touch, I'm not gonna say working on leave, if something impacts their job.

So I'll often say to folks, you might think you don’t want to talk to anyone during leave, but what if your manager leaves? What if a position that you've been really excited about comes open and you wanna apply for that position? What if there's something that's going to dramatically and materially affect the job that you're in? 

The role is changing, there's something, it's not necessary that you're going to do the work around that, but maybe you want to at least give your opinion or perspective so that people feel like they have some ownership, so that when they come back, they're completely taken aback by the shifts and changes that have come their way.

AW: Yeah, it's funny because I was being interviewed for an article yesterday, and I was asked to give some examples, and I shared some personal examples. I've had two direct reports go on leave in the past year. Both of them, I have contacted them while they were on leave about the things that they told me were most important to their career when they returned to work. 

So in one situation, it was a really fundamental piece of this person's job and so I texted her and I said, ‘Hey, we're about to make this decision. I can either delay the decision until you're back, or if you wanna talk about it now, I'm more than happy to do that. It's totally up to you.’

And she said, ‘No, I wanna talk about it now.’

She was at the end of her leave, it was her fourth child. You know what I'm talking about. So she said, ‘Oh, fourth kid, I've got support systems in place. I've been out for 14 weeks at this point. I'm feeling really good. Let's just hop on a quick call.’ I worked around her schedule, we did it then.

DP: I think this piece around just giving people options: ‘Hey, here's some ideas. We could talk about it when you come back. We could talk about it now. We can work around your schedule because like what baby has a routine or schedule’ is so important. 

There are other times when I think that a person's voice can be heard during their leave that I have often advised folks. So sometimes people will say, ‘We're doing strategic planning, but I'm gonna be out.’ They don’t necessarily want to call in, so I'll say, ‘Okay, well, you generally have a sense of how strategic planning goes. You've been with the organization. Could you draft an email or draft a memo and schedule to send it for around the time that strategic planning is happening?’ Say something like, ‘Hey, I know that you all are getting started with strategic planning. I would love for you to consider these three things.’ 

And that way you've used your brain before you've gone out so that you could also be present when you go on your leave so that you're not having these thoughts still hanging out there. You've written something, but you've also delivered it at a time when people are starting to think about it.

AW: Yeah, I love that. I've also done a lot of thinking about the opposite, which is when people are trying to work more on leave and it's unnecessary. And this actually happened to me yesterday where my direct report, who is currently on leave, said he was going to run a sales call that was really important. 

And I said no and asked him why. He said, ‘Well, it's really important. It's really important.’ And I had to convince him, ‘No, you've been out. You're rusty. I'm going to do it. What are your concerns?’ He walked me through his concerns, and I promised him that I would address them. 

And so I do think that this is where it gets hard. It's like, yes, he's an adult. He could decide. And by the way, we should talk about the legal implications. Parentaly is a very small company. There are no laws that he cannot work while he's on leave. I could have fired him for going on leave. I didn't have to give him paid leave. And so we're actually outside of the legal world with Parentaly. 

So sure, he can, I guess, decide that he can come back to work early, but I think it's also healthy to pressure test the why. Where is this coming from and is this even a good idea? Because certainly I can take the sales meeting. Why does he need to do it? That doesn't make any sense. 

DP: Yeah, and so one of the things that can be so useful to think about in this scenario is something I call the hidden no. By saying yes to taking this sales call, what might this person be saying no to? 

And you really need to be explicit. So they're saying no to potentially that time with their baby. They're saying no to allowing others on the team to grow and step up. They're saying no to the presence. And there are trade-offs, right? So sometimes people say, you know, I'm okay with that trade-off, but I always encourage people to think about what is the “hidden no” behind this? 

Make it explicit, because you know, this often will happen when you go back to work. Well, I'll take that meeting at five o'clock. Yeah, that's fine. You know, it's okay, right? It becomes a very slippery slope. But by saying no, or by saying yes to that meeting at 5 p.m., I might be saying no to having dinner with my kids, picking them up from daycare, having that only time that I can have with them while they're awake before they head off to bed. So are you comfortable with that trade-off? 

So for me, this idea of what am I saying no to if I say yes to this request? And so just going back to why am I doing this is so important. And what will happen as a result of doing this? Once you start to step back into work, you're in.

AW: Right? And so I said to him, ‘It's not even about the sales meeting.’ Like I didn't even really care. It's half an hour of his life. Fine. ‘But now you've gone to the sales meeting. Now you're going to have to own the follow-up. Now you're going to worry about it. Now you're going to be thinking about all of the next steps there. And am I following up on it correctly? And now you're back in and you're worrying, worrying, worrying. This is your last week of parental leave.’ That's not right. 

And so I think that there is such a push and pull here and just to sort of go back to the legal point, cause that's always the pushback from companies. Is this illegal? And the truth is, it is problematic for some companies. I'm not a legal expert, but my understanding of this is that most large companies fall under FMLA. Employees are allowed to have a job protected, unpaid leave for 12 weeks. 

And I think the language that is used, because I've researched this, it's around like, you can't disrupt the leave. So not that you can't talk to them. You can communicate with people who are on leave. And that's where it gets really difficult because companies get nervous where they're like, ‘Well, what is disrupt,’ right? 

So yeah, I think what is important is that, and the other thing to keep in mind is that some companies will fund the first portion of a birthing parent's leave with disability, in which case you can't work while you're on disability as well. So there are certainly legal implications. 

But what I always push companies on is…there's working while on leave and there's staying in touch, and that is different. It's scary for a large company because they think, yeah, but if we tell our 50,000 employees, it's okay to contact someone while on leave, it opens up those floodgates of not knowing what they’re going to do. And do they understand what keeping in touch means versus work? So I understand why companies say do not talk to them. It's tough.

Well, thank you so much for your time today. This was great. I could talk to you for hours. I think this is just such an important topic and I think it is important for managers and company leaders and even expecting employees to hear this conversation and to understand where this can be really helpful and how to build an optionality into their world so that they continue to have agency in their career and what they wanna do when they return to work.