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  • Writer's pictureEilish Jamieson

The one thing that can make a return from maternity a success

Yet is so often overlooked..

It’s a fairly accepted fact that you can’t know how you will feel being a parent, until you are one. No amount of reading, planning, story-telling will predict how you will feel. Experiences of first time parenthood are vastly different, from the “what the hell just happened to my old life” to the “my world is now complete” varieties.

Expectations and realities are often heavily influenced by your upbringing, peer groups, and feelings about this significant transition in life. So it may not be that surprising that many managers and companies find it hard to strike a balance on how best to support team members returning from maternity leave. It can often feel like a sensitive tightrope, particularly for male managers.

Flexible working, keeping-in-touch days, hand-overs, team briefings may all be in the mix for a maternity transition plan. However, there is one area that I see overlooked time and time again.

Evidence suggests that women are likely to suffer a drop in confidence whilst on maternity leave for a number of different reasons. Being ‘out of the loop’ or ‘outside the bubble’ can give rise to numerous fears and insecurities around performance, competence, team acceptance, or even their relationship with the boss. That’s before you throw in concerns around juggling this new life and doing that alongside a career that was already pretty fast paced. Add to that a massive boost of the chemical oxytocin, which whilst great for baby bonding, is not known for its motivational effects which are so needed when that 6am alarm clock goes one hour after you got the baby to finally sleep!

Managers often respond to this by ‘easing’ their team member back into the workplace, perhaps even with their temporary cover looming around in the background. Maybe removing their opportunity to take part in key initiatives, or making decisions around their ability to commit to certain roles or responsibilities.

This could be the single biggest mistake.

A high performer, who has suffered a temporary dip in confidence, and wanting to get back to feeling good about their work and ability to balance it with new commitments, needs opportunities to experience success quickly after returning to work. This may be in the form of short projects, participating in key team decisions, or opportunities to take on new roles with significance to the team and company.

The keys to these early successes are that they

  • are challenging but achievable

  • allow them to draw on their experience

  • have a short timeframe

  • have a high level of autonomy, but with regular support and checkin

If this is supplemented with a coaching and mentorship program, then the manager and company are sending a clear message that they value their employee, and want to support them to achieving success in their newly formed roles.

Clients who have been offered these short term success assignments soon after returning have described a more rapid return to their confidence levels, higher levels of motivation, more loyalty towards the company, and a greater sense of control over creating balance around their new roles.

A study commissioned by the UK Government in 2018 reported that

  • Fewer than one-in-five of all new mothers, and 29 per cent of first-time mothers, return to full-time work in the first three years after maternity leave. This falls to 15 per cent after five years.

  • 17 per cent of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to four per cent of men.

  • A woman’s likelihood of returning to work in the years after birth is independent of the number of children she has; what matters to her likelihood of working is her employment status the year before her child is born.

  • In the year before birth, the man was the main earner in 54 per cent of couples. This increases to 69 per cent three years after birth.

  • Mothers who leave employment completely are three times more likely to return to a lower-paid or lower-responsibility role than those who do not take a break.

Whilst these gender differences may in part be down to family decisions around childcare and finances, the report also indicated that mothers, in particular, felt that their chance of progression in their company had declined once they had children. In the majority of cases this was down to opportunities or responsibilities being taken away from them when they returned to the company after maternity.

If you think the above numbers are shocking, then the figures for financial services making for even more sober reading. Almost 50% of women leave the sector within 5 years of having a second child, and the number within some organisations, particularly investment banking, is closer to 70%.

These are qualified, competent and extremely capable professionals.

The most important role of a manager with a team member returning from maternity leave, should be to support their probability of success, not make them go scraping for it.


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