Discovering parents’ experiences of returning to work

Life transitions such as having a baby, returning to work or starting a new business are complex and diverse experiences. They involve multiple interactions with government departments and non-government organisations. 

Some life transitions are more emotional, more involved and less linear than others. Becoming a carer and Returning to work as a parent are two life transitions we have recently explored for the Digital Transformation Agency

Through this discovery research we illuminated the concerns, barriers, priorities and capabilities of the people experiencing these life transitions.  These stories, strategies and situations are synthesised into visual frameworks, such as a journey map, that provides important context for government agencies to use to guide service improvement.

To include parents in a range of locations and situations, we used online and face-to-face  in-context interviews and mini discussion sessions. We met with single parents, same-sex couple families, refugee parents and first time through to fourth time parents working in a range of industries including hairdressing, cabin crew, education, finance and consulting. 

To help prepare for the research, parents completed a visual mapping activity (which some found therapeutic to complete). These priming activities give participants time to reflect on their experience and remember important emotions and details, so the time we spend together is optimised.

Research Design: Mixed Methodology and Priming



We also interviewed a range of subject matter experts researching contemporary family life in Australia and some exemplary organisations currently leading the charge in providing a supportive workplace for families.  These interviews provided further context, highlighting the structural barriers and entrenched social norms parents navigate during this life transition.  We identified issues with the gender pay gap and gendered notions of who should be doing the caring and who should be doing the breadwinning as issues to unpack during our research with parents.

Themes and insights

What happens before going on leave has a significant impact on the return to work experience. The process of returning to work begins during pregnancy. 

Along with this key research finding, some other important findings include:

  • Accessible, affordable and quality child care plays a vital role in enabling families to return to work. 
  • Returning to work is a transition for the whole family. 
  • It takes trust, teamwork and open and ongoing conversations to enable a smooth return to work process. 
  • Supporting both parents to take parental leave, to skill up and to nurture has positive flow-on effects. 
  • A more gradual return to work is ideal.  
  • Returning to work is a transition that happens over several years.

Parents who are able to return to work on their terms and when they feel ready are more motivated and resilient.

The research has been used to help inform current and future work within the DTA.