Returning From Parental Leave Can Be Stressful. How Some Employers Aim to Fix That. - Kanebridge News
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Returning From Parental Leave Can Be Stressful. How Some Employers Aim to Fix That.

Companies increasingly are creating formal ‘reboarding’ programs to help new parents transition back to work more easily

Thu, Feb 1, 2024 9:04amGrey Clock 5 min

Sarah Tucker-Ray, a partner in McKinsey’s Washington, D.C., office, felt a lot of trepidation when she took a six-month parental leave in 2022.

“There is fear about, ‘Am I going to get written out of the story?’ ” says the 36-year-old Tucker-Ray, whose daughter, Viviana, was born in August 2022. “Is someone going to step in for me and take over? How will I come back?”

She addressed those fears in a reintegration plan that she drafted before going on leave. It included instructions for those who would be covering her workload while she was out, and it laid out what she wanted her job to look like when she returned. For example, Tucker-Ray didn’t want her role to change significantly, but she asked to not be given any internal projects—those focused on McKinsey’s own operations versus those of outside clients—during her first six months back. She also thought about small stuff, such as writing down all of her passwords, and she connected with other working mothers at the company who served as peer counsellors before she went on leave.

“They told me that the goal for week one is to get dressed, have breakfast with my baby, get into a suit without getting spilled on and get out the door,” she says. “It sounds so basic but I hadn’t had to do that yet.”

The days, weeks, and months after a new parent returns to work after leave can be a critical and challenging time for an employee. Many experience anxiety about how they are going to manage work and parenting, and some end up feeling like a failure at both.

To address that, some organisations have launched formal “reboarding” programs that structure those first months back after leave so they aren’t overwhelming for new parents, while also providing them with emotional support. McKinsey tested such a program in Europe and then expanded it globally

Many see it as a business imperative. Organisations are making substantial investments in paid maternity and paternity leave—in 2023, 40% of organisations in a Society for Human Resource Management survey offered paid maternity leave and 32% offered paid paternity leave—and they want to ensure new parents return to work and are productive and content when they do.

Tucker-Ray was happy to learn that McKinsey would cover the cost of her daughter and her husband to join her on a business trip. PHOTO: ELIZABETH FRANTZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Creating a plan

A successful reboarding program requires planning, and it and starts long before an employee goes on leave, consultants and HR leaders say. It begins with mapping out a comprehensive work-coverage plan, including if and under what circumstances the employee wants to be contacted about work while out on leave. The plan also should create clear expectations about what the return-to-work will look like, including the employee’s job description post-leave and even an explanation of what that first daunting day back might entail.

Many reboarding programs also connect new moms with experienced working parents or colleagues who have recently returned from parental leaves, as well as a coach (often an outside consultant) who can help set priorities and guidance on best practices.

When Maria del Mar Martinez became head of McKinsey’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in Europe in 2018, she learned that working moms left the management-consulting firm at nearly double the rate of their childless female peers with similar tenure. In exit interviews, women shared common grievances, including the challenge of balancing parenthood with a demanding job, a lack of support from their managers and few role models.

She heard similar sentiments in Asia and the U.S.

“That was a business problem,” says del Mar Martinez, now the global head of DEI at McKinsey. “I don’t want to lose those amazing women coming up the pipeline.”

To combat attrition, del Mar Martinez created a reboarding pilot program in Europe that included coaching employees before, during and after a parental leave. (Men are eligible to take part in the program if they have taken 12 weeks or more of leave.)

Built into the plan was a guarantee that new parents would have “meaningful work” upon their return, with the option of slowing down if that’s what they wanted, says del Mar Martinez. One issue, she and others say, is that managers often incorrectly assume that new mothers want lighter workloads or don’t want to travel, which is why it’s important for employees to spell out their preferences in a reboarding plan.

The McKinsey pilot required managers to confirm they understood their employee’s reintegration plan and to calibrate goals in performance reviews to ensure the person taking leave wouldn’t be penalised.

It worked. McKinsey closed the European attrition gap in 18 months, del Mar Martinez says, and later expanded the program globally.

The manager’s role

Other companies are increasing the support they offer to new parents, too, including Wall Street’s Morgan Stanley, which in 2019 appointed Allyson Bronner head of family advocacy at the company’s institutional division, a full-time position that focuses on supporting employees before, during and after parental leaves.

Bronner says one of the best ways to ensure a successful return experience for new parents is to include managers in the process.

To that end, she meets with an expecting employee’s manager between the 25th and 30th week of pregnancy to preview what the employee’s return-to-work will look like and discuss best practices for easing the transition.

“It’s important to set the scene and give them tools to manage their employees,” she says.

She says her next meeting with the manager occurs about a month before the employee is due back to discuss how the first month should be structured. She suggests the manager call the new parent two to three weeks ahead to preview what the first few days back will look like—namely, checking email and showing colleagues baby pictures.

The support continues throughout the first several months, with managers having weekly check-ins with the employee for the first six weeks and then monthly check-ins after that. Bronner encourages managers to ask new parents how they are doing and how their child care is going to determine whether they would benefit from more support or advice in that area.

Since Morgan Stanley created the family advocacy role, “it feels like there has been a culture shift,” Bronner says. “It’s hard to quantify in numbers, but culturally it feels like we’re moving in a more positive direction.”

A culture shift is also under way at chip-equipment maker ASML, which recently expanded the paid parental leave it offers and in May joined forces with employee-benefits firm Parentaly to create a support system for new parents.

ASML is in a male-dominated industry, says Karen Reinhardt, the firm’s chief human-resource officer in the U.S., so retaining women is critical to having a diverse workforce.

As of December, 82 employees had registered for the reboarding program, “more people than we expected,” Reinhardt says.

Among them is Meredith Polm Sheain of San Diego, a knowledge-management developer who went out on maternity leave in late August. In her reboarding plan, she made clear that she wanted to be notified while on leave about any bumps in a recently launched product. She also laid out her priorities for the first two months of her return.

“I felt so much better about the concept of returning to work once I gave my team this plan,” says Polm Sheain, who returned to work on Dec. 22. “I left them and myself in the best position I could.”

Reboarding isn’t the only new benefit companies are offering to make life easier for new parents.

McKinsey’s Tucker-Ray was asked to attend a partner conference in Atlanta about six weeks after returning from maternity leave. The firm covered the cost of her daughter and caregiver (her husband) to join her on the trip since she was still breast-feeding.

“I would have been torn about going away for nearly a week for an internal event but it became a nonevent,” she says. “It got rid of the barrier to feeling you can’t participate fully in parenting and be a leader.”


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The S&P 500 index has been crushing private-equity returns in the past year, and Blackstone ’s second-quarter results illustrate that trend.

As part of its earnings release early Thursday Blackstone said its corporate private-equity returns in the year ending in June were 11.3%. That compares with a 24.5% total return for the S&P 500.

In the prior year ending in June 2023, the S&P 500 topped Blackstone with a 19.4% return against 9.7% for the firm’s corporate private-equity business, which has $145 billion of assets and remains one of its most important areas along with real estate.

Blackstone is the leading alternatives firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management and has the largest market value of any public investment firm at more than $160 billion.

Driven by Nvidia , Microsoft , Apple , Amazon and other big technology stocks, the S&P 500 has handily topped most asset classes in the past several years.

Another sign of more difficult times for private equity came earlier this week from Calpers, the $503 billion California pension fund, when it reported it s preliminary returns for its fiscal year ending in June . Calpers is one of the first major endowments or pension funds to report results for the June fiscal year. undefined The pension fund, a major player in private equity, said its private-equity investments gained 10.9% net of fees—although that figure is lagged one quarter. Calpers’ public-equity investments were up 17.5% in the year ended June—its strongest asset class. Private equity remains a favorite of many pension funds and leading university endowments like those of Harvard and Yale. Their view is that private equity can beat public-market returns over the long term.

But the private-equity business has gotten tougher in recent years due to keen competition for deals, higher interest rates and a less receptive IPO market, which has made exits tougher.

And private-equity portfolios of firms like Blackstone look nothing like the S&P 500, given their investments in small to midsize companies.

Blackstone, for instance, bought a majority stake in Emerson’s climate technologies business last year and more recently purchased Tropical Smoothie, a franchiser of fast-casual cafes. It also holds a stake in Bumble, the publicly traded online dating site, and it’s an investor in actress Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Blackstone’s corporate private-equity business runs $145 billion and has 82 investments, according to the firm’s website.

Blackstone’s private-equity business has strong long-term returns including a gain of over 50% in the year ended in June 2021 when it handily topped the S&P 500 index.

But the S&P 500 index has become difficult to beat more recently and it’s dominated by some of the best companies in the world. It carries less risk than private equity, given the cash-rich balance sheets of its leading companies like Apple , Microsoft and Alphabet .

Private-equity firms, by contrast, often use considerable leverage to boost returns. Investors can get exposure to the S&P 500 through index funds that charge 0.1% or less in annual fees and with immediate liquidity.

A key risk with the S&P 500 is its vulnerability to a selloff in the leading tech firms that now make up over 40% of the index. The recent rotation into smaller companies illustrates that.

Blackstone shares gained 1.1% to $136.31 Thursday in the wake of its earnings news as investors focused on rising investment deployments and positive management comments on the firm’s outlook.

The firm’s nearly $40 billion of inflows and $34 billion of capital deployment during the second quarter marked “the highest level of investment activity in two years,” Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement.

Citi analyst Christopher Allen wrote in a note to clients on Thursday that while Blackstone’s overall performance was mixed, the outlook appears to be improving given fund-raising and deployment trends.

Investors also were heartened by Blackstone President Jon Gray’s comments about a bottoming in commercial real estate and strong capital deployment in that area.

But ultimately, the game for Blackstone and its alternatives peers is about performance—particularly beating low-fee public investments like the S&P 500. That seems to be getting more difficult.