How to manage parental leave for university staff

Parental leave presents challenges for the parent and the workplace, writes Judith Lock. Here are some dos and don’ts for before, during and after the leave period that aim to smooth the return to work and fix academia’s leaky pipeline

Judith Lock's avatar
2 Apr 2024
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For women, the “leaky pipeline” – the loss of female academics from STEM fields – has been known about for decades. The demands of caring for young children are at odds with the increasing demands of academia, resulting in poor work-life balance and decreasing well-being of parents. This can lead to parents being lost from academia.

In the UK, the loss of female academics was one of the main driving forces behind the Athena Swan Charter to support gender equality.

So it is perhaps surprising that progress to alleviate the stresses and challenges associated with return from parental leave continues to be variable. Support also needs to go beyond mothers. If we enable fathers to be more equal parents, we take the burden from mothers. This requires a cultural change in how family leave is viewed. Growing, giving birth to and raising the next generation is not a holiday, and no one chooses to have a baby to get out of doing work.

Since the birth of a baby is rarely completely unexpected, this provides the opportunity for both employee and workplace to plan for the stages of family leave and to factor in support before, during and after return.

Human resources and line management documentation should include guidelines supporting parental leave. Following a challenging return from my second maternity leave, in 2022 (after a lockdown pregnancy), I used funding from my faculty at the University of Southampton to run a project focused on support for returners. Originally, we planned to survey returners, but it proved difficult to get people together – perhaps unsurprisingly, because we were trying to engage an already overloaded community. We did find a huge appetite, however, when an event was run, including a workshop for parents and career coaching.

The result was a framework of guidelines for departments to consider when a member of staff is planning to take family leave.

Before family leave

Consider the workload of the person going on family leave and identify which tasks they perform that should take place during their planned parental leave. Then find out whether existing staff have workload capacity and expertise to take on these essential tasks or whether additional cover staff are required. Remember that on return, the person will likely be sleep deprived and will have been out of the workplace for several months. The following dos and don’ts may help in these decisions.


  • Don’t assume that you can allocate the work of the person going on leave to other staff members; you are increasing their workload, potentially beyond capacity.
  • Don’t ask the person going on family leave to suggest which members of staff take on each task. They do not know the workloads of colleagues; they are not their managers.
  • Don’t move tasks to a later or earlier date, so that the person going on family leave has more work before or after going on leave.
  • Don’t front-load all the work required, hoping that the person going on leave will do as much as possible beforehand.
  • Don’t expect them to simply pick up where they left off when they return.


  • Arrange cover for that person.
  • Have a handover period of at least a month, in case family leave has to begin earlier than expected.
  • Normalise that it might not be possible to cover absolutely everything that a person does (this is also useful to consider when academic staff are unavailable for other reasons, such as long-term sickness or sabbatical). For example, if someone is the main member of staff on a module and there is not appropriate cover, it might not be possible to run the module that year.
  • Sit down with the person going on leave to make a plan for their final trimester and for the year after return. It is likely that the person will tell you about their pregnancy at the start of their second trimester, and they will be keen to gain assurances from you.
  • Put in place a staggered work plan for the person’s return that considers cognitive overload. Annual leave is accrued during parental leave and can be used to gradually ease the return. It is also beneficial for the baby’s settling into their new routine with their childcare provider.
  • Agree a communication plan during parental leave (for example, that email will be checked once a week). Any communications should consider this time plan. Some people may prefer a phone call or other forms of communication.
  • Many universities have mentoring programmes that are topic-specific and that will include mentees with lived experience of parental leave, who can be valuable sources of information.

During family leave

Before the new parent returns from family leave, most university HR departments will ask their line manager to confirm whether the person will be returning on their expected date. This often happens eight weeks before return, which makes sense for the university but is too early for parents! My experience was that my line manager forwarded that email to me, but I was on maternity leave, not sitting at my desk reading emails. I fed back that people on leave should not be reading emails, and the process at the University of Southampton has changed; staff are now sent a letter.


  • Don’t expect people on leave to be constantly on email.
  • Don’t expect new parents to have a crystal-clear idea of their work capacity. Babies have good and bad weeks, and what a parent can do will vary from week to week. It is less frustrating all round to have no expectations.


  • Respect the agreed communication plan.
  • Ensure that line managers receive training in order to be able to support returners from family leave.

After family leave

Return to work is difficult for parents. They have been through something life-changing, and now have a small person’s needs and life to juggle everything else around. They may be leaving their baby for the first time on their first day back at work. There are likely to be tears, from both baby and parent.


  • Don’t expect the returner to start exactly where they left off, perhaps a year before.
  • Don’t just leave them to it, with no acknowledgement.
  • Don’t fill their first few days back with meetings and training.


Use a return-to-work induction checklist; we worked with Clara Wilcox at The Balance Collective to develop ours:

  • Role-specific updates What is the status of the work covered while they were off? Ideally, this would be a meeting with their manager and job cover. A handover document is a great tool to use as a template for updates on progress and decisions made.
  • Strategy What, if any, changes have been made to the strategy of the organisation, and how does that impact the team and the role itself?
  • Staffing What key staffing changes have occurred? How does this impact their role?
  • Funding/grants/income What, if anything has changed, and how would this impact their role, budgets, resources or timescales?
  • Policies/processes Have there been changes to how things run? This can include operational (such as IT/approvals) as well as higher-level HR elements within the organisation.
  • Training and opportunities This may be driven by earlier elements, such as changes in processes or staffing. Or it could be down to changes within the organisation or department. What training and opportunities are available? Over the initial return, it is useful to ask the individual what they want for their personal and professional development.
  • Work-life balance What do they need to support their well-being?

I have experienced two returns from maternity leave to the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton. I found maternity leave a strange time, losing my own identity and the huge lifestyle change that comes with becoming a parent for the first time. With my second child, it was more difficult because I was juggling another person. It has been far from easy; my mental health has suffered. Two years from my return after my second child, I am still struggling but recognise that I am coping better. It has made me motivated to try to change the culture in academia (industry is ahead of us in supporting all parents), and to improve the experience of parental leave returners.

Judith Lock is principal teaching fellow in ecology and evolution within biological sciences at the University of Southampton.

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