3 December 2015

By Daniel Godsall

Our Views

Returning to work after maternity leave isn’t easy, but there are options that can help you feel more in control.

Returning to work after maternity leave is rarely easy. Regardless of quips from some commentators (and colleagues) regarding a supposed maternal desire to leave demanding infants in the care of others, while sipping a cappuccino and reading the papers during lunch, the harsh reality of picking up the workplace reins is challenging.

Leaving your baby at home is bad enough. Even for mothers sharing child care with partners and/or close relatives, that first week back at work is often a gut-wrenching feeling. One of my research participants (now a leading international lawyer) recalled how tears sprang to her eyes when she looked out of her office window and observed a woman pushing a baby in a pram.
You might be missing your baby, feeling guilty about returning to work and worrying that your baby might be missing you, to say nothing of the anxiety prompted by having to reacclimatise to a busy workplace environment.

In such circumstances, it might be hoped that organizations would do everything possible to support new mums to settle back in to the fold especially during those first few weeks as mothers try to reintegrate themselves at work and manage the inevitable changes in working patterns, practices and staffing that have occurred while they have been away.

To be fair, some workplaces do try. Each year, benchmarking exercises identify good practice among employers both large and small.

However, for many women, the support available is insufficient to outweigh the tough challenges of trying to settle back into an old workplace environment when everything about their personal lives feels new. Furthermore, while family friendly benefits may be available on paper, these might be difficult to access in practice at a time when mothers may be tired and anxious, and not therefore ideally placed to fight for entitlements.

As a researcher of work and family, I continue to be taken aback by the consistent lack of support, from organizations, for women returning from maternity leave. Interviewees commonly report circumstances where their roles have been down-shifted, their job descriptions changed and their desks have (literally) been moved into corridors and broom cupboards.

My own findings over many years have recently been affirmed by the recent BIS report which explores pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination in the workplace and outlines the findings from interviews with over 3,000 mothers and over 3,000 employers in Great Britain. The report – while acknowledging the support offered from some employers – highlights how many women experience unfair treatment during pregnancy, and many felt they experienced worse treatment on their return from maternity leave than before they were pregnant.

These findings raise the important question: what might we do about this? On a positive note, research such as that undertaken by BIS and the pro-active approach taken by companies like WOMBA will gradually chip away at negative organizational approaches to working mothers. However, such positive future actions might not help you if you are just back at work (or about to return there tomorrow!)

In an ideal world, new mums would not need to add to their burdens by fighting their corner and researching how best to manage their return to work. In practice though, if organizations are not set up to help you there are still things you can do. One of the best ‘ports of call’ for good advice is the London based charity Working Families who offering advice and guidance to for the most frequently asked questions.

They have also have a helpline, giving guidance on entitlements regarding (for example) flexible working.

Your own HR department may be a good source of advice. You might be able to agree with your employer that an appointment with HR is a good way to use one of your ‘keep in touch days’ (optional opportunities to spend 10 days of your maternity leave at work) should these be available to you/you wish to use these. Often, HR departments might have knowledge of facilities on offer which are not widely advertised, sometimes for budgetary reasons. For example, some organizations have limited budgets to pay for individual and independent coaching sessions (perhaps even specialist maternity coaching) which might be afforded to you if you ask.

Particularly if you are a first time mother, women who have already experienced the return from maternity leave can be a great source of advice. They may have already done the groundwork of finding out locations of mother and child or lactation rooms (if you are still breastfeeding) and they may have views on the benefits (or otherwise) of KIT days.

Remember you are a skilled worker with transferable skills as well as a new mum. See if you can network with other mums at work and don’t be afraid about being open with your employers regarding your needs now you have children.

Good luck!

Caroline Gatrell is Professor of Management Studies at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), Department of Management Learning and Leadership (DMLL). Her research focuses on health, work and family and is theoretically driven, drawing upon notions of the body and gender. She critically analyses, from a socio-cultural perspective, how employed parents manage boundaries between employment and everyday lives.

Professor Caroline Gatrell from Lancaster Business School
Professor Gatrell