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Redesigning the Return to Work After Maternity Leave

By Jessica Bailey, Head of Partnerships & Client Development

Introducing #4 in PTHR’s Unorthodox and Unplugged team blog series. Brought to us by Jessica Bailey, PTHR’s Head of Partnerships & Client Development, not to mention one of three working-super-mums on our team!

 

 

Picture the scene: toys being thrown out of the pram, boundaries being pushed, feeling like you’re not being listened to and negotiations to the max. To some, this could very easily just be another difficult meeting at the (now virtual) office, where at least a mute button on any trying scenario is more of a reality right now. To others, this could also very accurately describe their daily parenting challenges (where we can only dream of a mute button). Looking at such similarities, one might expect parents to be some of the most experienced at handling difficult situations at work. We are experts at juggling, prioritising, getting-sh*t-done and for women, all whilst recovering from going through perhaps the biggest physical (and often mental) experience we could go through in our life. Yet all so often, mums ready to return to the workplace after their maternity leave are still not treated with as much equality as one would hope and expect in a generation, very rightly so, fuelling movements for under-represented groups. Not to be discriminatory myself here but please NB that I’m going to focus on mums in this piece as it is the mothers who are currently taking 24 times more parental leave than their male counterparts and are the ones negatively affected by the gender pay gap, with reports of having a child setting a woman’s career back by up to 6 years.

 

Although the UK is still a large way behind a great many countries in their approach to paid maternity leave (Estonia, Sweden and Norway being at the top), having spent my own pregnancy, labour and (very brief) maternity leave in the US (a country with no national paid leave policy for mothers or fathers), I won’t criticise the UK approach. However, the lack of support for women going back to work and the inflexibility in options for working part-time, job sharing, working from home etc., is still a very long way off where it needs to be. The Covid-19 pandemic has, however, had one silver lining, and this is that employers have been forced to allow their employees to work from home and has seen parents balancing a full-time job with homeschooling and parenting with zero childcare (often with babies featuring on many a Zoom meeting or calls being worked around nap times). And they’ve seen parents juggle this crisis like pros, homeschooling whilst still being productive at work. So add back in childcare and there is less excuse for an employer to say that an office-based job cannot be done from home if it means a woman can keep her job (and career) post-baby. For some, a two hour daily commute or working 5 days a week just isn’t feasible or good for either mum or baby but they are forced into it by inflexible bosses. 

 

My own situation was somewhat tricky in that, as a Brit, my job was based in Los Angeles and involved a fair amount of global travel. There was never any suggestion made by my employer that my job could work part-time, from home or be altered to fit my new-found situation and having already had to ask for slightly longer (unpaid) time off beyond the given 12 weeks, I didn’t feel able to ask for further adjustments to be made. Rather than spending all my earnings on rent and childcare and rarely seeing my son, I made the difficult decision, when my son was 4 months old, to quit my job (of 7 years), head back to Blighty and take some months back with my parents with my own self-imposed (and financially lacking) ‘maternity leave.’ And yes, I miss Santa Monica’s palm trees, I miss being able to order an authentic taco, I miss lying on my sofa at night with the door wide open listening to the crickets, but… these last two years I got to spend with my son have been priceless and no job or sun-filled city, however much love I may have had for them at one time, could replace that. But again, should that have been a decision I was forced to make so early on after creating a human life? In my opinion, no. We should be given options to slot into our new circumstances. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between our career and making decent money, or our children. 

 

As a psychology graduate, I love a spot of research so rather than just rely on my own experiences and of those close to me, I interviewed a bunch of other mums (from a range of industries) about their experiences. Disclaimer: my research was very rudimentary compared to my dissertation-paper days, but it’s a start. Repeated themes came up. Most mums felt that there was little employer planning on the role they would undertake when returning or no proactive plan thought out in advance, so the initial back to work phase was harder than it needed to be. Some reported a ‘hard no’ when they asked to drop down to 4 days a week or start earlier and finish earlier in order to fit around childcare options (even though the total working hours were the same) and many very sadly felt that they had less respect from their managers than before having their baby. To quote one mother:

“ I experienced some awkward conversations after I went back to work during which it was suggested that top management wanted to see me prove myself capable of doing the job again because they viewed women coming back to work after mat leave as ‘not being fully focused on their job’. For me this was an unacceptable view and was one reason I had to leave. One colleague had to make a formal presentation for how she would be able to meet/exceed her targets by working four days instead of five per week before it would be considered by management. In the end she was granted a four day week with a pay cut, but with higher targets!” 

 

A study conducted by DPG in 2018 found that 9 in 10 (88%) of those who return to work face problems when doing so and 1 in 10 suffered from mental health issues in relation to their return to work. 19% left their jobs altogether due to the difficulties they faced. Another study by Easy Offices in 2017 found how difficult it is to adjust to the new priorities that come with having a baby but also suggest it can be hard to reintegrate into the workplace. Three in 10 have experienced negativity from colleagues because they have had to take time off to care for their kids. And over a quarter admit they initially felt left out by colleagues when they came back to work. Over a third of those surveyed believe it takes time to regain self-confidence in the workplace following the birth of a child.  There must be so much more we can be doing to avoid all of this.

 

Although for some mums, being forced out of the workplace is the impetus they need to kickstart their own businesses, the reality is that only a handful of these are likely to be profitable and viable. Not all women want the stresses involved in running their own businesses or to have to start from the beginning when they have built a flourishing career for the last 10 or more years.

 

Given the difficulties so many mums face in the workplace, I feel incredibly lucky to have found PTHR who actively encourages a self-managed approach for all employees. Working hours are flexible and on mornings where I’m too exhausted to produce decently due to my toddler’s shoddy sleep, I find hours elsewhere in the week or even weekend where I’m more ‘on form’. Out of 8 colleagues, 3 of us are working mums. We all work up to 9 hours a week, at times that fit around (minimal) childcare, naps (our child’s sadly, not our own) and bedtimes. Kids regularly feature on Zoom calls and they are welcomed into the fold (by fellow parents and non-parents alike). It’s supportive, inclusive and encouraging. And because of this I not only can do more but I want to do more for the company and give back, so the approach is not only fair, but motivating and savvy. 

 

For any employer reading this, please think about what further support you can offer your employees due to return to work after parental leave as this will not only lead to healthier, happier, more motivated employees but ensure investment on prior training isn’t lost and can avoid a huge loss of knowledgeable and experienced staff. Here are some approaches that parents themselves have reported to be most helpful:

 

  • offering some extra parental leave if they don’t feel ready to make that step back
  • considering the option of a job share
  • flexible working, particularly for unforeseen situations like child sickness, to avoid feelings of guilt
  • confidence training or any other development skills that could help that shift back to the workplace
  • a proper welcome back lunch for their first week back 
  • ensuring they are introduced to all new starters since they were off
  • encouraging fathers to have some flexible working to take the pressure off their partner (with senior managers leading by example on this)
  • invitations to work events and socials even if they are still on parental leave to help them feel included
  • having a clear plan agreed and in place before the employee returns to work 
  • onsite creches 

 

And for the mums, remember, you are not alone with any feelings of self-doubt, insecurity or angst you may have prior to returning to or once back at work. If you’re currently looking for work to fit around childcare, check out That Works For Me – a supportive platform for flexible work that aims to help women stay in the workplace after childbirth. We would love to hear your own stories about your return to work post-baby and any examples of companies who have already got it right – please do feel free to share these, especially as it will help us as we develop our latest People@Work Lab for parents (particularly for those returning to work after parental leave). Equally, if you just want to recommend where I can get the best taco in London or a beach in Essex to rival Santa Monica’s then please do also get in touch as these things are important too!