First Month Back Disaster: Returning From Maternity Leave

d&i strategies managing working parents maternity leave return to work work life harmony working parents Mar 25, 2019

What happens when new mothers are not supported fully  upon returning from maternity leave?

It’s not just the mother who suffers - the business squashes the career ambitions of a dedicated employee within the company and risks losing a skilled worker. This case study demonstrates a very common trend amongst employers and new working mothers.

Jennifer’s first month back at work following maternity leave was of course challenging as she was learning how to balance work and family commitments. In some ways, her employer helped and in others, she was very much let down. In her view, the poor treatment she received from her employer were bumps in the road and just what she had come to expect as a new mother. So she shrugged her shoulders and accepted it.

The negative actions of her employer caused her to be demoted, earn less money, and stop breastfeeding earlier than she wanted to. Just think about the implications of all of that for a moment...

Yet, Jennifer remains, fulfills her role and responsibilities and accepts these as the consequences of having a child and going back to work. Far from ideal for her and what’s the impact on the company? Put simply: invisible attrition. Jennifer no longer has ambitions to advance her career within the company - because she doesn’t feel that she can when she has a child. Her job has become a  way to pay the bills. A thing she has to do. Someone who was 100% committed and eager to advance feels this is now impossible.

She has not left so there is no negative financial and business implication for the business in terms of attrition but Jennifer is doing what 1000s of other women do in this situation - she opts out of potential leadership. One less candidate to help create gender equality at senior management levels.

This is what happens when working parents aren’t supported.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Jennifer was the head nurse at a medium sized Veterinary practice. She had spent years studying and building her career, so that she was seen as high performer in the  in the company she worked, managing the whole nursing team. She worked over 40 hours a week, including late shifts, on call, bank holidays and weekends.  

When she became pregnant, her manager was very supportive but totally unprepared for the challenges Jennifer would face as a pregnant employee in a Veterinary environment. It soon became clear that this was very new for the business as well as for Jennifer.

She says: “There was no real protocol for what was safe for me to do, just a basic sheet explaining that I could not be involved in taking X-rays of the patients. I did most of the research myself. I was still expected to be on call (including lone working). I found myself having to refuse to lift and administer parasite control and finally at approximately 20 weeks pregnant I approached my employer to request that I come off the on call rota as I felt it was unsafe for me to be handling animals and working in the practice at night on my own.

“They did support me in this, although I did feel it was all very much initiated by myself and if I hadn't approached them I believe I would have been expected to carry on until my maternity leave commenced. I did not receive my pregnancy risk assessment until I was 20 weeks pregnant, which was at my request as I'd had a little scare at work from overdoing it and ended up in the hospital with abdominal pains. I believe if there had been a protocol for pregnant employees which included what was expected of them, what tasks were safe/not safe to carry out, and regular check ins with my line manager, I would have felt more valued as an employee during this time. However since my pregnancy and my research, there has been in a more in-depth document put together and a health and safety representative appointed.”

During her maternity leave, Jennifer saw her employer a few times because she was completing an external management course that she had started before she left. She also worked her “keeping in touch” days when they were short staffed.

Jennifer says that completing at  least one “keeping in touch” day per month since going on maternity leave helped her to feel confident about returning to work. It gave her the opportunity to keep up to date with her nursing skills, meet any new team members and hear about any changes that were happening. She was part of a social media group with her teammates which helped her to feel included, and she was also emailed about any team meetings by her line manager but often it was at the last minute and she was unable to organise child care in time.

Upon returning to work, Jennifer says that her employer “was very sensitive and flexible to my needs as a new parent” by preparing a room where she could breastfeed and express milk for her baby. However this room was still being used as an office and Jennifer had to ask people to leave when she needed to use it. They also allowed her a second break in the afternoon so that she could express or breastfeed if her partner brought her baby in.

At Thriving Talent/Parents we can’t emphasise enough the importance of  providing a private room to express milk and breastfeed which can be locked. It is also important to be have the conversations regularly as to how much time an employee needs for breastfeeding so it can be effectively managed. There is not one fixed approach so employees and companies need to work out the what and how, knowing that this is not forever.

Jennifer says: My biggest challenge was coping being without my baby for the first time and continuing to breastfeed while working. I had to introduce formula for some feeds while I was a work. I struggled to express as I wasn't comfortable asking people to leave the office space while I expressed. Ultimately my baby started to feed less from me and he “took” himself off the breast at 10 months old.”

The other challenge she had to overcome when returning to work was reducing her hours. She felt that she wanted to try working part time at first so that she could still spend some time at home with her baby.

She says: “When I went into work to discuss the hours I would like to work on my return to work, they were very accommodating to part time hours. They agreed to no on-call, no late shifts and no weekends or bank holidays. I have managed to fit all of my working hours into two days. I do not get to see my son much on these two days but it means I have the rest of the week to share with him. However I did have to give up my role as head nurse and as a result take a pay cut due to no longer being in the management team. ”

In our work at Thriving Talent supporting organisations, we advise senior management on the importance of reviewing management roles to change the mindset that leadership can only be performed at 100%. For the majority of the time, this is not the case. It does take an investment of time to reconfigure job roles so that there is this greater flexibility. However organisations who know that their sustainability and success as a business depends on having greater diversity in leadership, see this as a very necessary investment if they want to attract more women into management positions.   

Jennifer hopes to become a night nurse in the new year, so that she can only work while her son sleeps for a maximum of three nights a week for two weeks, one night for the third week, followed by 10 days off. It will allow her to spend most days with her son and be more financially stable too.

But as for her career ambition? Maybe it will come back in a few years, she says...

“I feel like my work and life balance is finally about right. I get to spend just enough time at work that I feel like I'm doing something for myself but not spending too much time away from my son. My priorities have completely changed. Where I once got caught up in the politics of work, feeling stressed and down about various work related issues, and finding it difficult not to continue thinking about it once home, now I do not. Once I have left my workplace I am able to switch off and enjoy time with my family.

“I was always very career focused and ambitious. I have much less interest in my career now. My priority is being a mother and that is my main focus which has actually really shocked me as I always thought I would be career focused even once my baby had arrived. At present I have no interest in furthering my career within the veterinary nursing industry as I do not have the time to start studying again. I may consider this once my son is a bit older.

“My advice is, if possible get as many hours into one day as you can. Although the working days are long and I may miss bedtime two nights a week, that sacrifice is absolutely worth it as it enables me to spend every other day making precious memories with my little boy.”

Jennifer’s story reflects the realities of managing family and careers. It takes the self-awareness to know what you want, both as a parent and as a professional. It means making compromises so that you can find a way of honoring what is important to you. For most of us, we can’t have everything all the time, so we choose what is needed to find a balance. We advise carers to take a “pulse check” every 3 months to see if those choices still work or if they can make changes to make life/work better. If employers do not empower carers to work smartly or take on a leadership role on reduced hours, this talent pool soon start exploring moving jobs to other organisations who can.

Through our corporate services at Thriving Talent as well as through our brand, Thriving Parents, we support and enable working parents to realise their career aspirations whilst enjoying their family life. If you would like us to help your employer build a more supportive environment or you would like to be part of an exclusive support group, please get in touch.

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