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November 17, 2022

Why Is Returning From Maternity Leave So Hard?

Alice Gledhill

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Returning from maternity leave offers unique challenges. According to research by Ipsos, almost three in 10 women (29 percent) felt that taking maternity leave had a negative impact on their careers. Meanwhile, less than half the proportion of men (13 percent) noticed the same impact after paternity leave.

A few months ago, I caught up with a couple of my colleagues about their experience of maternity leave and what happens when it ends...

Surprise! It's a... Confidence Crisis!

Mel Dowding

B2C Director, Mel Dowding, went on maternity leave at the end of May 2020 and her son was born around two weeks later. She said, "I was surprised by how difficult it was to return to work. I'm sure many people underestimate how hard it will be. It's such a huge context switch, and I feel it affected my confidence for quite some time. I tried to approach it like starting a new job, but there are greater expectations on you because you're not actually new in the job. You have a huge gap in your corporate memory and I'm not sure it's ever possible to fully catch up.

"I spent quite a long time feeling a bit out of date and unsure of myself. Catching up after so much time away focusing on something so completely different is tricky. Lots of new people had started so I had quite a few new faces to get to know as well as new ways of working. Teams had gotten used to remote working during the time I was away from the business, and I was behind not only in terms of using the technology but also in the way people’s working patterns and behaviors had evolved. It was fascinating in a way to see how the world of work had changed, but also challenging to catch up."

It Isn't "Baby Brain"

Lucy Bishop

Senior Editor, Lucy Bishop, also experienced a loss of confidence. She said, "It definitely took me a while to feel that belonging again. I would say a good two or three months before I felt secure and confident again.

"Not being in work for a year hadn’t dulled my brain or intelligence in any way (I know some people talk about "baby brain")… but it still took me a while to get used to the new software, new team members and new setup... a lot had changed.

"I definitely went through a bit of a confidence crisis. At times I felt like the new starter again, which I think is probably what shook my confidence. But also getting used to not seeing my baby every day… your mind is definitely split between two worlds, and that can be quite hard to navigate when you first get back to work."

Helping Mothers Return to Work

So what can managers and leaders do to help ease that transition back into work for mothers? Here are some strategies that Mel and Lucy found useful:

Prepare for Their Maternity Leave

As Mel told me, "you can never start too early on the planning front!" By planning ahead for someone's return after maternity leave, you can ensure a smoother transition down the line. Not only for your team members but for the business as well.

Preparation beforehand is essential, too. Lucy recalls the weeks leading up to her maternity leave positively: "My team was really prepared, which was great. They'd already employed someone to cover my maternity leave, and I set up process documents to help with the handover."

Offer a Gradual Return

Both Mel and Lucy took advantage of Emerald's "Returnity" policy. It's a "mutually agreed phased return," which allows parents to make a more gradual return to work. As part of this staggered approach, they stayed in touch with their teams in the days leading up to their return, and Lucy even visited the office prior to her full return. "This was particularly helpful," she said, "to help me get to know new starters who I'd never met before, and to get a feel for the work that was currently being undertaken by the team."

Mel caught up with her manager and co-workers over a lunch. "I also had (another!) lunch with one of the people who covered my maternity leave, which was a good handover before she moved on."

Continue to Support Mothers After Their Return

Ease a returnee's transition back into work by setting up a series of useful meetings after their return. These will allow them to catch up with their teammates and meet any new ones.

Offer regular check-ins. Organize regular one-on-ones for them with their manager or someone from HR. These sessions aren't to monitor their progress, but should allow them to build a support network so they feel comfortable asking for help, and being open and honest about any challenges they are facing.

Be flexible. New parents can feel guilty when they have to leave their baby for the first time. This can be especially difficult in the first few weeks after their return. Consider offering them flexible working or a phased return, so that they can create a work-life balance that suits their needs.

Provide resources and ERGs. Signpost support for them and their teams, to spread awareness about the challenges that people returning from maternity leave often face. Set up employee resource groups (ERGs) for new parents who are juggling their return to work with their new responsibilities as a parent. This will help them to know that they're not alone.

Benefits to the Business

Admittedly, some businesses – particularly smaller ones – may see maternity leave as a burden to production and costs. But, in the long run, investing in maternity cover can often benefit your teams and the wider organization.

Content Manager, Charlie Swift, reflected on a time in a previous job when several of his team members had maternity leave over the course of a few years. He said, "Instead of it being a continual drain on production, we gained in the long run. Each time I recruited someone to cover a temporarily vacant role, they ended up maintaining some kind of connection with us after the team member returned to work.

"One joined our additional pool of freelancers, another became the job share partner of a mother who returned part-time, and yet another became the permanent replacement for a leaver.

"In all cases, we'd invested in training, they'd fully engaged in the work, and everyone benefited from the resulting extended network of knowledge and experience that we'd managed to retain. It was a model of flexibility and collaboration. Oh, and every new parent returned with a new zeal for time management – a lesson to us all!"

In our next blog in the series, we'll be looking at paternity leave and shared parental leave – the positives and negatives – and how it can be used to support working parents.

Have you found it hard to return to work after parental leave? What do you think organizations can do to make the transition easier? Let us know in the comments section, below!

© Original artwork from Anna Montgomery.

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