30 October 2015
I have just had an amazing year as a stay-at-home dad, sharing the care of my new son, Jesse, with my wife.
My experience was made all the better because on leaving my senior management role at a large FTSE 100 company, I was fortunate enough to benefit from a significant investment in me via an outplacement redundancy programme.
This kind of generous support has, over the last ten years, become normal practice among larger employers. The elements I found most useful were the training to prepare for re-entry into the job market, and individual coaching that helped me develop different perspectives on the choices I could make.
I had a couple of wobbly moments, the ones when you question your sense of purpose and identity. On a bad day such a big change can feel quite daunting; frightening even. I am grateful to my employer for their generosity towards me, particularly as I, and every other leaver in my position, is never likely to go back.
During my time off my son and I regularly socialised with a group of new mothers, many of whom had been navigating their return to work. The juxtaposition of my experience of leaving my company and their experiences of returning to work could not have been starker.
Take Anna for example: as she got ready to re-enter the workplace she shared with me her anxiety about her return to work. She wasn’t the only one to feel like this. For each of these women the details were different, but the central themes were incredibly consistent. They shared feelings of guilt about leaving their child in the care of others; concerns about their ability to cope with the dual roles of committed worker and caring mother; fears about being as capable as beforehand; concerns about what colleagues and managers thought of them as work patterns changed and on the occasions where their child was necessarily prioritised over work.
Our research with new parents and those growing their families highlights the personal and professional challenges that are part and parcel of this transition from working individuals to working parents. Some companies handle this better than others, and having a supportive line manager makes a big difference. Feeling comfortable to have a conversation about flexible working, knowing that it’s okay to take time out when you need to, feeling as though your contribution is still valued: all of these make a positive difference for returners.
But it is also true that for many parents their feelings and concerns are left unspoken. It is as if they feel that they can only speak positively about their experience, that to say anything even slightly controversial makes them appear ungrateful, or, at worst, poor parents.
Anna later talked about how difficult she found it to admit, even to herself, how hard it was to settle back into work. It made her feel weak; that she was somehow coping much worse than others in the same situation.
This was a theme that developed time and time again. Even with a great boss many individuals found themselves maintaining a stiff upper lip. There’s only so much they felt comfortable in sharing, even with the best of their colleagues. Some of these experiences were so deeply personal, they would not vocalise them even to their friends and family. This lonesome pact of silence served only to increase their stress levels.
On the face of it, becoming a parent bears no practical comparison to that of losing your job, but the more I think of it, the more I realise that the impact on confidence, on feelings of self-worth, and on productivity, are strikingly similar. Throw in exhaustion and almost perpetual illness during your child’s first year in childcare, and the challenges can feel insurmountable. In this context, as good as it is that corporates today invest millions of pounds in providing supportive outplacement programmes for redundant workers; the lack of investment in training and maternity coaching for returners seems both illogical and counter-intuitive.
The payoffs for this type of investment would be huge, both for businesses and for parents. Forward-thinking companies who choose to nurture their employees in this way will reap the rewards.
By creating a supportive, caring and professional environment for parents returning to the workplace, they will benefit from the well-known increased productivity and creativity of working mums and dads.
While becoming a parent is a stressful time and a huge life transition, it is also a moment when the ability to multi-task has never been greater; problem solving skills have never been sharper; and the ambition to leave a tangible imprint on the world of work, to make time spent away from a beloved child worth every second, never stronger. The benefits to parents of a supported and receptive transition mean that they will return to their careers with verve and dynamism, surer in the knowledge that they have made considered and informed decisions, and with more commitment to the employer who buoyed them through it.
Now is the time for companies to recognise the value of investing in training and maternity coaching for returners so that their experience is no less supported than that which is so generously provided for leavers.
Dan Godsall is one of the Founders of WOMBA, a company that provides tailored training and coaching programmes to companies who are committed to supporting working parents. Previously he was Managing Director at a FTSE 100 financial services firm. He is also proud and hands-on father to sixteen-month-old Jesse.
Also published on Medium.