A proactive approach to parental leave will help you cover staff absences and facilitate a smooth return to work. By Angela Tufvesson
Most new parents are eligible for parental leave: 12 months of unpaid leave plus 18 weeks of leave paid at the national minimum wage for primary carers, and two weeks of paid leave for partners.
A new baby is a wonderful gift, but there’s no doubt covering lengthy staff absences can be a challenge for small businesses. There’s the financial stress as well as concerns about maintaining consistent standards of work and patient care. Not to mention the uncertainty surrounding the exact date of the new arrival.
So, what’s the best way to manage parental leave in your practice and ensure it’s a happy time for both employee and employer?
Be creative about organising cover
The obvious solution to a lengthy gap in staffing is to bring in a replacement to cover the full period of leave. When a dentist goes on parental leave, it’s common to hire a locum, who is typically employed as a contractor or employed through an agency.
“Appointing a locum through an agency is easier as the agency will often take much of the responsibility in managing billings, tax and other government subsidies or incentives,” says Erin Gaffney, senior employment relations adviser at Employsure.
But this isn’t the only solution, says Therese Ravell from Impact HR. “If you have someone who is working part-time and they would like more hours, perhaps the ability is there to increase their hours to full-time and bring in another part-time person,” she says.
“If a new father wants to take a couple of weeks off at the beginning, then take more time off during the 12 months but not all at the same time, there might be somebody else in the practice who would like to take some extra shifts.
“Have an open discussion with your team about how you can support the person who’s going on leave.”
Plan for a long handover
Larger corporates have the luxury of big teams of people doing the same job, so there’s always someone on hand to train replacement staff when someone’s on leave. In small practices, one person may work across two or three different parts of the business, which means teaching their replacement the ropes can take a lot of time—and money.
The solution? As soon as you find out your employee will be taking parental leave, ask them to write detailed notes over the coming months covering all the tasks they’re involved in. “You want to find out who’s responsible for what and where the handover points are to make life as easy as possible,” says Ravell. When you have an idea of how the role will be covered, gradually train up existing staff or organise brief handover sessions for new staff.
Get your finances sorted
The most important thing you need to know when it comes to finances is this: the government foots the bill for your employee’s paid leave, but it’s your job to pay your employee. Thankfully, the government pays you before your employee’s usual pay cycle cut-off.
“One of the things we find all the time is that managers in small businesses are concerned about the fact that the parental leave payment comes through them as the employer, but there’s really nothing to worry about,” says Ravell.
Keep in touch
Keeping in touch with employees during parental leave is one of the most effective ways to facilitate an easy return to work down the track—and retain good staff. “During parental leave a lot shifts for the individual, so it’s important to keep that connection so when they do come back the transition into work is as smooth as possible,” says Ravell.
If you usually give flowers or share cake for an employee’s birthday, inviting staff members on parental leave—plus baby—can help to maintain this connection. If it’s tricky for staff to attend, sending a small gift on their birthday is a thoughtful touch.
Formal ‘keeping in touch’ days—where staff work as many as 10 paid days over a 12-month period—offer a more concrete connection to your practice. “You’ve got staff members that are a great cultural fit, and you want to do your best to transition them back into the workforce,” says Shane Morgan from Cutcher & Neale. “Keeping in touch days don’t affect parental leave entitlements and they’re a great way for people to work a few hours here and there to maintain their connection with the practice.”
After parental leave ends, employees can request flexible working arrangements, such as working fewer hours or days, changed starting and finishing times, and job sharing. Employers can only refuse a request on reasonable business grounds, but Ravell says it’s important to note that the law aims to benefit both parties.
“The employer doesn’t have to agree to every element of flexibility that is requested of them,” she says. “As a manager of a small business, you have a right to have a really open discussion about what the employee would like as their absolute preference when they return to work, but also what is reasonable and manageable for your practice.”