Are we doing enough to help women returning to work after maternity leave?

19 November, 2018

For some women, returning to work following maternity leave cannot come soon enough, however for the majority of women returning to work can be a very daunting period of their life. The worry of having to leave their new born baby in somebody else’s care, often for the very first time, whilst also worrying about re-adjusting to working life can make it an emotionally draining transition and therefore one which many women fear.

Will my workload have increased? Is there new management? Do I have new team members? Are there new social groups? Have new work systems been introduced? Are there new rules/regulations?

These types of questions are endless and often justified, as many women do return to work to find that changes have taken place, in both their workload and social groups. For some women, re-adjusting to these changes proves very difficult; this is exemplified in research which shows that 1 in 3 women leave their jobs within just 2 years of returning from maternity leave.

The reality of gender discrimination also plays a role here. It is hard to avoid the daily news articles highlighting the frequent cases of workplace discrimination for women and the ongoing gender pay gap debate. Therefore, additional worries for those returning to work following maternity leave often include the possibility of redundancy, restructuring, reduction in hours and thus a reduction in salary, dismissal or loss of their key responsibilities. Some companies seem to have a lack of understanding regarding how to treat new mothers returning to work. Reports have shown that in response to requests for flexible working, some companies offer part-time working as an alternative; a completely different concept and an option which many new mothers cannot afford to take.

It is clear then that some companies need to do more to support women returning from maternity leave. The challenges these women may be facing when returning to work need to be acknowledged and addressed and a support structure needs to be put in place to make this transition as easy as possible. Some companies are already doing this brilliantly; the different techniques these companies use can be copied and implemented by all businesses to ensure women are fully supported, not only when they return from maternity leave, but also before and during their leave. Such techniques include:

  • Staggered return

Agreeing to allow those returning from maternity leave to have a phased return to work is a great idea which allows the new mother to ease back into their role gently, whilst also giving them time to work out the logistics of returning to work. This can be implemented over a number of weeks, however, if this is not an option, encouraging employees returning from maternity leave to start work on a Wednesday or Thursday rather than a Monday could also be advantageous. This will give the new mother a taster of what it will be like to be back at work, whilst also acting as a trial run with regards to timings, child care and any other new responsibilities they may have to consider.

  • Flexible working

Alongside adequate maternity leave and higher pay, offering flexible working is rated as one of the most important factors women consider when returning to work. Ultimately this equates to employers being understanding of new mother’s situations and thus allowing changes based on their individual circumstances, from letting them leave early to pick up their new born up from child care to offering the opportunity to work from home several days a week. In today’s society, where flexible working is becoming widely accepted and is slowly becoming the norm, it is likely that many women, especially millennials as they approach this period of their life, will expect flexible working to be an option as they will understand many jobs can easily be modified to fit with their transition.

·        An inclusive culture

With regards to the social aspect, employees can really help to ease the transition for new mothers by helping those returning to work feel welcome and a valued member of the team, regardless of any team changes that may have taken place. Hosting a welcome back staff lunch or staff team bonding day once the new mother has returned from maternity leave may help, as will remaining in contact throughout their maternity leave. This is known in the industry as KIT (keep in touch) days; these act as useful ways to keep employers in the loop at work and ensure the employee still feels like a valued member of the company, whilst not being physically present.

 

It is no surprise that many women do worry about returning to work and for some that may always be the case; however it is clear that companies can make a real difference. They need to acknowledge that they have a key role to play in supporting women through this period and in re-integrating them back into the business. The shocking statistic that reveals 85% of new mothers believe that UK employers are poor when it comes to being family friendly, can easily be changed by ensuring they support women by both encouraging career growth and promotion as they would with other members of the team, whilst also being flexible in their understanding of the new mothers’ situations and making allowances, where necessary. After all, it is in a company’s best interest to do this as these women represent an underutilised yet hugely valuable talent pool in a very much candidate-driven market.