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Ep 418: A Mindful Return

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For many people who take parental leave, returning to work can be a very challenging time where they are not getting the support they need from their employer. So what should employers be doing to support new parents, particularly when talent retention is such a big issue?

My guest this week is Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return. Mindful Return is an organisation focused on helping parents and employers manage effective transitions back into the workplace, and Lori has some valuable insights to share.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The common issues and difficulties for parents returning to work after parental leave

• The dangers of managers making assumptions

• What are employers getting wrong

• The importance of dialogue

• Making the transition an intentional and thoughtful process

• A mindful mindset, logistics, leadership and community

• Skills

• Culture, belonging and retention

• What are the best employers doing

• What does the future of flexible working look like?

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Interview transcription:

SHL (0s):
Support for this podcast is provided by SHL. From talent acquisition to talent management, SHL solutions provide your organization with the power and scale to build your business with a skilled, motivated, and energized workforce you need. SHL takes the guesswork out of growing a talented team by helping you match the right people to the right moments with simplicity and speed. They equip recruiters and leaders with people insights at an organization, team, and individual level. Accelerating growth, decision-making, talent mobility, and inspiring an inclusive culture.

SHL (44s):
To build a future where businesses thrive because their people thrive visit shl.com to learn more.

Digital Talent by Matt Alder (54s):
Before we start the show, a quick announcement to say that my latest book, Digital Talent is now available to order or pre-order wherever you get your books. In a disrupted and technology-enabled world of work, a company’s ability to attract, recruit and retain people with digital skills can be the difference between business success and business failure. I’ve co-authored again with Mervyn Dinnen and in the book, we explore how employers can find, recruit, retain, and develop the people they need in a time of intense digital transformation. The book is out now in the UK and will be published in the US and around the world, on March the 29th.

Matt Alder (1m 55s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 418 of The Recruiting Future Podcast. For many people who take parental leave, returning to work can be a very challenging time, where they are not getting the support they need from their employer. So what should employers be doing to support new parents, particularly when talent retention is such a big issue? My guest this week is Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return. Mindful Return is an organization focused on helping parents and employers manage effective transitions back into the workplace.

Matt Alder (2m 36s):
And Lori has some valuable insights to share. Hi Lori. And welcome to the podcast.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (2m 42s):
Matt, it is so good to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Matt Alder (2m 44s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (2m 50s):
Sure. So my name is Lori Mihalich-Levin. I live in Washington, D.C., and I like to say that I wear three main hats in life. Although I’m acutely aware that we all probably wear 732 hats on a daily basis. My home hat is that I am mom to two wonderful red-headed boys who are ages 9 and 11. And my professional hats are my main two professional hats are that I am a healthcare lawyer in private practice. And I run a program called Mindful Return that helps new parents transition back to work after parental leave and helps employers to retain their working parent talent.

Matt Alder (3m 26s):
That is such an interesting topic. It’s a very interesting topic for me, and I’m sure many people who are listening. Tell us a little bit about that aspect of your work.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (3m 35s):
So just to tell you a little bit about the story of why I care about this and got interested in it. I had one baby and returned to work in an in-house policy role. I returned to work full-time. And I found it to be challenging. And then I had my second child two years later and the wheels came off for me and my husband and our household. We like to say that one plus one felt like 85 and I was looking around for resources to support me in my role. And all I could find were things that were focused on my baby and babies, and that’s great. We need baby-focused resources, but there was nothing to support the personal and professional identity transition that I went through in becoming a working parent.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (4m 17s):
And the only advice I could find out there was snarky advice. Like, don’t put a picture of your child on your desk or people won’t take you seriously. And I thought that was pretty much nonsense. And so I really set out to create what I wished had existed for myself, both in terms of quality content, around how one can navigate a successful and calm, transition back, and also creating a supportive community. I felt very isolated when I was returning to work after parental leave. And I know that a lot of new parents do. So I was looking to create a cohort-based program that people could go through and not feel alone in that transition.

Matt Alder (4m 53s):
I think it’s such a big issue that doesn’t really get talked about a huge amount in the context of HR and employment and all those kinds of things. And the things that we talk about on the podcast, are very interesting for me because my family had been through a similar kind of circumstances. And I suppose with this, that the issues that parents go through are very different and very, very neat to them as individuals and individual families. But I’m guessing there are a lot of commonalities here. And what are the sort of the main issues and difficulties that you’re seeing from the people that you’re working with that and indeed your own experience?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (5m 34s):
Yeah, that’s such a great question, Matt, and well framed. I mean, you would think that the experiences are very unique, but in reality, I’m finding that new parents generally have more in common than they do differently when they’re returning. Some of the key concerns from the part of on the part of the new parent, who’s returning, include questions about their value. If I was gone for a number of months, you know, do I really matter to the team. Is there a place for me? There is the sort of shaken confidence after having been out. How will I deal with separating from my child and learn to trust other caregivers with my child?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (6m 15s):
I think is a big issue that, you know, new parents are facing. How will I reintegrate with a team? Will I feel like I’m behind for months and months when I come back? Am I coming back to my same role even, and there’s also a stigma around taking leave, particularly I want to venture on for fathers, who have often been conditioned to deny that they are taking leave or to take a shorter leave as possible rather than to sort of fully own that important time in their lives. From the perspective of the employer, it’s often a question of, well, are they going to come back? And what will their schedule look like when they come back? And often benevolent employers will be thinking, oh, well, I’ll go easy on them.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (6m 58s):
And I just won’t give them the hard projects or I’ll ask them, you know, I won’t ask them to travel. And I think what we all need to do is to not make assumptions about each other as new parents and as employers. And to ask the question, do you want this project to do? You know, offer up the same types of work that you would previously have offered so that you’re not limiting someone’s career opportunities, just because you think you’re being helpful upon their return. I could go on, but there are many concerns on both sides.

Matt Alder (7m 25s):
Why do you think this is so difficult? What is it that employers are getting wrong? This making it hard for people or at very least not making it easy for people to make that transition back to work?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (7m 37s):
I think one of the number one things employers get wrong is believing that the person is going to act and behave in identical ways to when they left. Just assuming that the same person is arriving back after parental leave. And it’s not true in many respects, one of which is scheduling, right? I think it’s a very human thing to give birth and to have, you know, the next generation of humanity created, and yet it is often considered to be an anomaly in the workplace or, oh, you know, we have to work around the schedule now, or I think it’s important to pause if you’re an employer and say, I believe in this person for the long haul, this is a transition period.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (8m 22s):
The return is not an event. It is a process that’s going to take a couple of weeks and months, potentially. You know, I’d like to say that the return is a process that takes about a year until everybody’s sort of back to feeling whatever their new normal, new stable is. And when folks think that they don’t have to pay much attention to it after the first week or two, I think that’s where employers go wrong or get it wrong.

Matt Alder (8m 47s):
What helps? What would make things better?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (8m 50s):
Dialogue. A lot more dialogue. A lot more conversations about it. I think, first of all, to say to the employee, like I care about you through this transition. We’re going to figure this out together. And we’re going to talk through issues as they arise and make it normal to bring up concerns and scheduling questions. What would make it better is actually like having structured programs around the transition and making it a more intentional and thoughtful process, making sure that both sides are, you know, the employer and the employee and the manager are talking to each other on a regular basis about the transition or scheduling meetings both before the person goes out and upon return.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (9m 33s):
And just having a general openness and again, lack of assumptions. Try not to make assumptions about what the other person is thinking.

Matt Alder (9m 41s):
You mentioned that you basically run cohort-based courses, workshops, or ways of helping people. How can people help themselves? What is it that you cover? What kind of mindset do people need to be shifting to? What part does the employee pay in this process?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (9m 59s):
Sure. So, you know, if an employee, for example, is going through one of our programs, then they’re actively engaged in learning how to make a transition back to work more smoothly. And we focus on four themes through this program that I think are quite frankly, four themes that are useful in anyone’s life during any life transition. And, you know, I’ve used these four themes and focused on them when I’ve moved to a new house or started a new job. So it’s not just the transition back to work after parental leave, but the four themes are a mindful mindset. And I think the employee can learn, you know, some micro mindfulness strategies to work into their day so that they can be calm and thoughtful as they return. The second bucket is logistics, and that’s really digging into all the nitty-gritty of how to make the logistical aspects of a chaotic day as a working parent actually function.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (10m 49s):
And that’s everything from navigating childcare to navigating conversations about schedules with your employer, to putting food on your own table, all those logistical things. The third prong that I like to focus on the third bucket is leadership. How can the employees show up as a leader in the space of return? And how can everyone involved focus on the skills that the employee is gaining through parenthood that are translatable and useful in the employee’s career? Which is something I think we don’t talk enough about. We often talk about what the employee is not providing anymore or is lacking, but instead, neuroscience research shows that the first year after having a baby is the most neuroplastic our brains are in our entire adult human lives.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (11m 35s):
And that’s true for a man or a woman. So like there’s a huge learning and growth opportunity here. And then the fourth prong that we focus on is staying in the community. The new parents can make sure that they’re not isolating themselves, crying on the kitchen floor as I did for way too long, and finding their people who are going to support them through this process.

Matt Alder (11m 51s):
Switching back to employers, supporting people in their attempt to work, however, an employer decides to do it, is doing the right thing. As you say, it’s investing in the next generation of humankind, which cannot not be a good thing. Over and above the obvious, what a value is there for employees to actually sort of make an active investment in this or take an active part in making this transition easier?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (12m 13s):
Yeah. So I think, you know, one is obviously culture and the feeling of belonging and inclusion within a company. I know working parenthood has become part of that diversity equity and inclusion conversation, which I really appreciate. The other perhaps obvious thing is retention. And in this talent war that we’re in right now, the ability to retain a valued employee who may otherwise have decided not to come back is huge, right? I mean, we know that it costs a lot to recruit and get a new employee on board. If you’re losing someone who was valuable before they had a baby and would be valuable upon their return.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (12m 56s):
You know, the data in the US on return rates is about 63/4% of women return after parental leave. And so you’re losing a third of the new parents, generally speaking, you know, it’s something we care a lot about at Mindful Return is the fact that you know, I mean, my initial impetus for this program was the Leakey Leadership Pipeline that happens when people have children and don’t come back. And so, you know, we ran a study of a thousand people who had been through the Mindful Return program. And we looked at a five-year period and found that 85% of the people who had been through the program, were still with their employer. And 93% were still in the workforce.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (13m 37s):
And to me that says, when an employer reaches out and says here, we value your transition back. We’re providing you with a tool to help you with the transition. And, you know, we care, the employee listens. There’s also research that shows that parents who feel like they were supported through the transition back to work after parental leave are some of the most loyal employees that a company can have. So it’s an important moment. And if you get it right, you wind up with a very enthusiastic, very engaged, and very grateful employee.

Matt Alder (14m 7s):
And those employers that are getting it right, I’m sure there are a lot of people listening who would like to be better at this. What are the employers who are getting this right, what are they doing well? And what would your advice be to people listening who want to make their company better at this?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (14m 24s):
Yeah, I think, first of all, they’re getting it right from a leadership level. They’re having the company leaders talk about it and normalize it and making sure that when you have working parent group conversations, there’s a member of leadership who shows up. They’re getting it right when HR has a structured plan for how people are going out and what the actual company’s policies and procedures are. Many of them, I have experienced personally and have heard many stories are a little discombobulated in the leave and return space. And aren’t even quite sure what all of their own policies are. So to the extent that they can be organized on centralized about the information that a parent or quite frankly, even a prospective new parents can find, I find that the transition goes smoother.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (15m 10s):
Employers who are getting it right, are periodically in touch with the employee while they are out, even just in a small celebratory way, right? Like sending the gift card for some food or the company wants to recognize the human event that has occurred here. And then upon return having a process and a structured way of checking in with the individual on a regular basis, employers that are getting it right, have phased in a return process, where the person isn’t coming back necessarily on a hundred percent schedule from day one but has an opportunity for the first say two or three months to phase back into work. There are a lot of things that employers can do to make this process smoother and show that the person, show the person that they were valued.

Matt Alder (15m 57s):
As a final question, we’re obviously going through a period of intense disruption around what work actually looks like with remote work and hybrid work and all these things, which in some ways have helped people in terms of offering perhaps more flexibility around their job than they had before, or what are you seeing and what do you hope the future’s going to look like?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (16m 23s):
I love that question. What I’m seeing from the perspective of new parents is, you know, especially in the work from home situation and the hybrid environment, a real joy, in many cases at having not had to do the separation and childcare transition that may have occurred if they were going back to an office five days a week. For women who are nursing, not having to pump and carry their pumps around all over the place, you know, three, four, or more times a day. And so I think there’s some benefit there. What I’m seeing on the struggle side is of course, what we’re all struggling with, which is boundaries between work and home at home, you know, noise-canceling headphones was a very popular purchase for working parents during the pandemic, just to be able to focus on what they’re doing.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (17m 13s):
But I do think that it has increased by leaps and bounds, the amount of flexibility that we can have in general, in a team. And I would really, really hope for the future that we can continue to work in ways that are accommodating to all of us and have more flexibility at the edges of the day in particular. Working parents struggle at the very beginning of the day, as you may have experienced – getting people out the door, getting folks to childcare on time, et cetera. And at the end of the day, right, whenever we’re dealing with bedtime, bath time, getting the child to bed. And to the extent, we can continue to have flexibility, particularly around those windows. I think that’s really helpful for working parents.

Matt Alder (17m 53s):
And finally, where can people find and connect with you?

Lori Mihalich-Levin (17m 59s):
The website is mindfulreturn.com. There’s a page specifically for employers. If you click on the “For Employers” tab, I’d be happy to give you a demo of our programs. You can reach me at Lori, L O R I @mindfulreturn.com. Link in with me. And I’m on all the usual social media channels. I also, co-host a podcast called Parents at Work, where you can find me and my husband interviewing folks in different industries and sectors on what it’s like to be a working parent in those particular roles.

Matt Alder (18m 28s):
Lori, thank you very much for joining me.

Lori Mihalich-Levin (18m 29s):
Thanks for having me, Matt. It was a pleasure to speak with you.

Matt Alder (18m 33s):
My thanks to Lori. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at recruitingfuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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