Parental leave is a precious time for parents and babies. It gives families the space to adjust to new routines, recover from pregnancy and labour, and develop invaluable early bonds. But for some parents, being away from their job, workplace and colleagues isn’t easy, and some may find re-integrating at work after an extended break daunting. If only parents across Australia on parental leave could return to work for a few days, on their own terms and get paid for it… (psst, they can!). Lawyer Sylvie Alston wants new parents to know about the little-known but mighty valuable keeping in touch (KIT) days.
At no fault of their own, many new parents know little about keeping in touch (KIT) days. In short, they offer employees on parental leave an opportunity to return to work and be paid for it. Regardless of what stage they’re at in their careers, everyone should know what they are, how they can access, arrange, and utilise KIT days, and the benefits they offer.
What are we talking about?
Section 79A of the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA) states by mutual agreement between employee and employer, an employee on parental leave can access ten ‘keeping in touch’ days for the purpose of staying connected and assisting in the transition back into work after a period of leave. The type of work performed must satisfy this purpose. For example, it could include taking part in a team strategic planning meeting, attending a conference specific to the role, or taking part in training of a new system. In these COVID-19 times, it could include undertaking training remotely via a virtual platform. Employees are to be remunerated for KIT days performed in addition to any paid leave.
What aren’t we talking about?
If a work activity does not fit the purpose set under the FWA then it can’t be counted as a KIT day. Outside of the FWA, employees can still informally keep in touch by catching up with colleagues for social purposes. Separately, organisations may also have their own KIT program which gives employees a positive right to keep in touch. Some new parents may want to check in with their colleagues or HR contact about what social events they might be able to attend. For example, during COVID-19, some teams may have started WhatsApp, Yammer or Teams groups to check in informally with each other.
Start the conversation
I recommend expecting or new parents take the first step and have a conversation with their manager. Organisations may not have a policy or may not approach their employees.
“Most managers want to do the right thing by their staff and will be guided by what you share as important to you and your parenting journey,” notes first-time parent and talent management professional Nayomi Alexander. More importantly, lawyers should not feel pressure to make a decision about accessing KIT days prior to going on leave.
If new parents are undecided, they should keep the communication lines open. Drawing from my own experience, as a second-time parent, I knew I wanted to access KIT days, but the question was how many I could realistically manage. I decided to arrange a meeting and sit down with my manager prior to going on leave with the view of making a plan of activities and dates for proposed KIT days. We agreed I’d check in three months in, to decide what could work practically. Leaders and organisations being flexible about opportunities for KIT days has become perhaps even more important now during these COVID-19 times.
Raise awareness and find support
If employers are not familiar with KIT days, expecting and new parents should do their research and be prepared to explain the benefits to the business and to their employment brand in terms of attracting and retaining talent, says Alexander. Further, many employers are open to discussing best practices for new parents and it could be an opportunity for more junior employees to raise awareness in their workplaces. If this is not possible, Alexander recommends “seeking out other parents and forming a community or peer-to-peer network that offers time together to discuss life as a new working parent”.
New parents shouldn’t forget to talk to others at their firm or organisation. Reach out to other parents about their parental leave experiences and what worked for them. For me, when I had my first child I was actually unemployed so accessing KIT days under the FWA wasn’t really an option for me. Instead I kept in touch informally with my former boss and colleagues, attended some CPD events and started a blog.
What are the benefits?
Being on parental leave doesn’t have to be seen as a penalty or obstacle to promotion or professional development.
Parents don’t need to ‘choose’ between being a parent or having a meaningful career. Thanks to KIT days, they can do both and do so on their own terms.
Accessing KIT days for Alexander “was a great way to gradually re-acclimatise into the workforce after a significant period of time away” and allowed her “to get a pulse on what was topical and relevant and reconnect”. For me, I knew my team was going through a lot of changes, and being part of some key discussions gave me confidence and motivated me for the future.
I found accessing KIT days boosted my confidence on both a personal and professional level. I attended a two-day planning event with my team in Sydney. I was eager to access KIT days, but I was also worried about travelling and working with my then three-month-old. I admit, at times it was hard and mentally exhausting, but I didn’t feel like I was doing it alone and without support. It was made possible with the support and understanding of my team and partner (who stayed at home and looked after the toddler). I welcomed the opportunity to be with my work colleagues again and to contribute to the strategy planning of our team. At the end of the trip, I felt more confident about being a parent and a lawyer.
Make an informed decision
The lead up to going on parental leave can be stressful, and then being on parental leave can sometimes be an isolating and overwhelming time. In the end, it is ultimately a very personal choice for parents about whether they want to keep in touch formally or informally with their workplace while on leave. There is no one right answer for all. It will be different for everyone.
Start the conversation about keeping in touch, know the benefits for you, and spread the word so others can also make an informed decision.
Written by Sylvie Alston. Sylvie is a parent to two children and is a lawyer in refugee law. In her spare time she enjoys writing about being a parent, a lover of all things purple and a lawyer on her blog The Purple Lawyer.