Returning From Maternity Leave Can Be A Burden Or An Opportunity

Employees And Employers Can Choose Either Path

Ruth Henderson
Aug 1, 2019 · 8 min read
Image from iStock

Maternity leave. Paternity leave. Parental leave. Sick Leave. Any kind of leave.

If you are lucky enough to work in an organization that offers leaves to its employees, then you know what an incredible benefit it is to you and your family.

If you’re an employer, you know it’s a necessary consideration to ensure your workforce thrives and has the ability to (at least somewhat) balance work and home responsibilities.

It may surprise you to know that while there are obvious “pros” associated with leaves of absence, there are also pretty significant “cons,” for both the employer and the employee.

As part of our launch of the Whiteboard Women Community, this post focuses on maternity leaves, the challenges associated with returning to work, and the impact, however unintentional, of gender bias on the returning mother’s career.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, 43% of qualified women voluntarily leave their jobs after having children.

That’s got to be a “con” for both the women AND the employers.

So why? Why does this happen?

Employers and Working Moms have different perspectives on this issue. Let’s look at it from both.

Working Moms

It’s probably fair to say that becoming a mother is a life changing experience, to put it mildly. In addition to all the physical and emotional changes a mom might experience, there is a massive impact on daily life and routine.

Luckily, most developed nations have some kind of paid maternity leave program, according to a report in 2016 by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development that studied maternity leave in 42 countries. On average, paid maternity leave in the countries studied lasts 18 weeks, which is roughly four months.

Lots of time to sort things out and get right back to work and pick up where you left off, right?

One might think so.

And you’d be making a HUGE (and probably wrong) assumption.

The thing is that even the most organized woman in the world is likely to be surprised at how things just aren’t quite like they expected or planned for it to be. The baby’s schedule isn’t consistent, the daycare doesn’t work quite as planned, and there’s a heck of a lot more to do than expected.

Interesting aside: even if we assume that the working mom has a partner at home with whom to share household and family responsibilities, a 2015 study in the US showed that a larger share of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities falls to the mother. This includes managing the child’s schedules and activities and also taking care of sick children.

When the mom returns to work, whether it’s been a six week leave or a six month leave, women feel that they lose about two years of contribution towards their career, per child. According to RBC Economics Research, women experience wage reductions that last for five years after the birth of a child.

Mothers can feel left behind by networking events or late night calls that are no longer possible because of their schedule. They may be labelled by the organization as “less productive” because they have other commitments. Plum jobs may go to men or to women with no children.

The culture may promote the stigma that moms are just not as valuable to the organization as those who can pull all-nighters and eat lunch at their desks every day.

And so, 43% of qualified women leave the organization. Or they stay, become disengaged, and fulfill the prophecy of being less productive — but for a very different reason than motherhood.

What can impacted moms do about it?

Our best tip is to muster all your strength and have an open discussion with your boss or with HR.

Sure. That may seem a bit overwhelming — after all, how do you go in there and not sound whiney or bitchy? Here are some tips to transform your work life and make it better for everyone:

  1. Make an appointment. This is an important conversation and you want to have time to talk it through.
  2. Prepare. What do you want to say? How can you say it in a constructive way?
  3. Practice. Have someone practice with you and come up with all the negative responses they can think of. How will you answer?
  4. Have solutions in mind. If you say, “I feel left out because I can’t attend the 5:30 call,” be prepared to be asked what suggestions you have? And, if possible, make sure you’ve floated those suggestions with your peers to make sure they are realistic.
  5. Be prepared for both a Yes and a No. If there’s agreement to your ideas, you’d better be able to get out there, make them happen, and show that you are able to perform better as a result. If you get a no, then you need to decide what to do next — find a new job? Stay and do nothing? Stay and try to implement some little changes on your own? You need to have a plan.

The Employer

The organization exists to get work done. Yes, it’s preferred if it gets done by happy, engaged people who have lots of flexible work arrangements and time to take care of home, but at the end of the day, things have to get done.

Imagine this: you’re the leader of a highly effective team of people who work to ever-changing deadlines and deal with high pressure situations every single day. You thrive on the pressure, and your bonus is dependent on the team being successful.

Ana recently came back from a six month maternity leave. You hired Ivan to temporarily backfill Ana, but frankly he is KILLING it, and you want to find a way for him to stay. Meanwhile, Ana, who used to be your “go-to” person for all the last minute stuff that needed to get done, now has to leave every day at 5 to pick up her baby from daycare, and she can no longer make the 5:30 sales calls. Fortunately Ivan is all over it.

You know you can’t let Ana go, and you’re sorry for her “situation,” but it’s affecting productivity and you don’t know what to do.

If it seems like a black and white issue to you (either in favour of Ana or in favour of the employer), be careful. There’s lots of grey in here.

The fact is, work DOES have to get done. And also, Ana DOES have to be respected and accommodated.

This is where many organizations get it wrong.

They label women like Ana as “no longer” productive, and see maternity leaves as a burden instead of what they really are: an opportunity.

That’s Right. Maternity Leaves Are An Opportunity.

We believe there are (at least) four specific things that an organization can do to help women want (and be able) to continue working in an organization post maternity leave.

  1. A Returnship Progam

If you Google the term “Returnship,” you find a host of articles either pro or against it. In these articles, a Returnship is defined as a way of easing a woman back into the workforce after a few years of a hiatus (for any reason, but usually for having children). Some organizations even use it as a way to test groups of women and offer jobs to those who show the most potential.

We love the idea of the term, and are proposing it be used in a different context. That is, as sort of an “on-boarding program” for women (or anyone) returning from a mat leave.

On-boarding programs are those that help new employees adjust to life in the organization. They help the new employee feel welcomed, important, valued, and set up for success.

What if there was a program that specifically helped women re-adjust to life in the organization? It could be personalized to that person’s needs, bring them up to speed on what’s happened while they were gone, provide key upcoming dates and milestones, and include conversations to assess the returning woman’s new needs, goals, desires, restrictions, etc.

2. A Coaching Program

Organizations are finding a real improvement in the satisfaction (and therefore the likelihood of staying in a job) of women post maternity leave by introducing a coaching program. In fact, Ernst & Young found a 14% increase in women returning from maternity leave by providing coaching to help them deal with, plan for, and excel at the transition back to work.

3. Eliminating the Stigma

What’s your organizational culture like? Is it acceptable to continue to hold those 5:30 meetings, even without Ana, because “that’s the time they’ve always been at?”

Could the culture be more flexible, either with working arrangements, with expectations, or with “how” a person gets their work done?

Making a real and visible effort to eliminate things that add to the stigma of “non productive new moms” is critical to helping rockstars like Ana show you what they CAN do, vs tripping them up and highlighting what they can’t do.

4. Transforming the Work

Consider this an opportunity to modernize and transform the way your office gets work done. Think of new ways to conduct business or to take advantage of new offerings that someone with Ana’s schedule might have (maybe she’s up at 5am and can deal with those clients in a different time zone or do some other value-add task that has never been done.)

Ask your moms (and dads, and others who are recently back from any kind of leave) what they need. Have realistic conversations and solve issues that may appear to be limiting, but that may actually have clever and transformative solutions.

Ask people what they need, and then move mountains to give it to them. You’ll be surprised at what they will want to do for you in return.

Creating an open culture where new ways of doing work are not only embraced but are sought out, where people can speak up and be honest about what’s holding them back, and where individuals are valued for WHAT they do, not just HOW they do it, ensures that your team remains engaged and dedicated.

Change your frame of reference to approach new moms returning from maternity leave as an opportunity for change and growth, and it will be a win-win all around.

Whiteboard Women is a new community launched by Whiteboard Consulting Group. Be sure to listen to our podcast “At the Whiteboard” on your podcast app of choice, or watch us record the podcast live on our YouTube channel.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +611K people. Follow to join our community.

Ruth Henderson

Written by

Co-Founder of whiteboardconsulting.ca. Publication: At The Whiteboard. Top writer in Leadership and Productivity.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +611K people. Follow to join our community.

More From Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade