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Navigating the Return to Work After Maternity Leave

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Tracy Gunn set up Mumager to help Mums transition back to the workplace after a period of maternity leave, and up to nine months after.

Juggling an international leadership development role with being a mother to two young boys, Tracy struggled with feelings of guilt and exhaustion and knew there had to be a better way to manage the return to work.
Recognising the onus is not just on parents to make the transition smoother, but also on companies, Tracy set up Mumager to offer practical advice and support to both parents and line managers.

 

How did the idea for Mumager come about?

The idea for Mumager came from my own experience of returning to work after my second maternity leave. I found it a real challenge. I went back to work when my youngest was 6 months old – and took on a global leadership development programme. This meant a lot of international travel – whilst having a toddler and baby at home.

I was exhausted, feeling guilty and my confidence was at an all time low.  I didn’t feel like I was performing in any area of my life.  I felt like a rubbish Mum and Coach. Like most of us do, I soldiered on and just ‘got on’ with things. I don’t think anyone else noticed that I wasn’t at my best – but I felt it.

With my background in positive psychology and leadership development I decided enough was enough – I had to change things. I started using simple tools and techniques to change my mindset – and I began to feel so much better about everything.

 

We have this in-built programming dating back thousands of years to be the primary care-giver and nurture our children. So when we go back to work we experience this internal conflict.

 

Wondering if it was just me that had found returning to work challenging, I began to do some research. The results were overwhelming – I discovered so many women had experienced something similar. I developed the Mumager Ramp Up workshop and ran the first one in May 2014.

Since then the business has grown and evolved with workshops for parents and line managers too. I’ve developed an online programme that is being rolled out across EMEA for one of my clients, which means we can reach a much larger audience. What started as a labour of love, and more of a ‘hobby’ has grown into a business in its own right as demand has continued to grow.

 

What does Mumager offer to parents and employers?

Most organisations recognize that there is work to be done to support women to reach senior leadership roles. There is also an increased focus on creating teams where everyone feels included and valued. However according to a CEB report (2015) there is a lack of knowledge in organisations when it comes to how to do that.

Mumager helps with the ‘how’ at both an organisational and individual level.  Our Mumager Ramp Up workshop helps women navigate their return to work after maternity leave, which is a huge time of transition and adjustment. Our Working Parents workshops help working parents to be at their best both at work and at home; and our Line Manager sessions offer practical advice about how to provide support to individuals teams.

 

What do you find are the main worries and concerns for Mothers returning to work after a period of maternity leave?

Whilst we’re all different there are some common themes that repeatedly come up.

Guilt is the first one – guilt about going back to work and leaving the baby in the care of someone else. Whilst our role as women has changed over the last few decades our brain chemistry hasn’t caught up. We have this in-built programming dating back thousands of years, to be the primary care-giver and nurture our children. So when we go back to work we experience this internal conflict.

Of course, some women look forward to going back to work – and feel guilty that they don’t feel guilty about leaving their baby. Or they feel guilty that they can’t do the hours that they used to, or that they are leaving the office before their colleagues. So it seems guilt is out to get us whichever way we look!

 

There is a still a perception that if you take maternity leave – your career is going to suffer. Many organisations are still measuring value in terms of hours put in, rather than outputs.

 

Overwhelm: 90% of parents find balancing work and home stressful.  Women often feel overwhelmed wondering how am I going to do it all? How am I going to juggle being a great mum, employee, partner, home-maker, friend… and all the other roles we play. In the early stages of coming back to work it can feel daunting as we try to find our feet and make everything work. The end result is that usually we put our own needs last – leaving many feeling exhausted and frazzled.

 

Perception: Worrying about other people’s perceptions is another key concern.  My baby is unwell – I need to leave work again – what does my manager think?  I’m leaving the office at 5pm, how do my colleagues feel about this? Do people think I’m a bad mum because I’ve gone back to work – am I doing the right thing?

 

My Career:  There is a still a perception that if you take maternity leave – your career is going to suffer. Many organisations are still measuring value in terms of hours put in, rather than outputs. Over 60% of the women that we surveyed in 2016 said that they still wanted to progress their career.  The challenge is how you can have it all – career and family.  Of course, I believe that it can be done – but it makes a huge difference if you have the support of your line manager.

 

Research shows that where flexibility is offered, women are 30% more likely to aspire to high-level positions

 

What advice would you give to managers and companies on how to ease staff in after a period of maternity leave?

In a tweet it would be ‘there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – you have to ask the individual what they need/want from you.

On a more detailed level I’d suggest:

  • Managing maternity leave begins from the moment that the individual shares their news, whether that’s a woman who is pregnant, a man who is going to become a dad, or someone who is going through an adoption process. It’s a momentous time – so however much of an inconvenience you might feel it’s going to be – say congratulations!
  • Talk upfront about how they would like to handle things.  Do they want to keep in touch during their leave, or not?  Recognize that whilst they may plan to come back after x months, things can change.  No-one quite knows what is going to happen and how they may feel.
  • When they are ready to come back, consider a staggered return to work – starting with a shorter working week and easing back in over a few weeks.
  • Allocate them a buddy – someone who has been through the experience already and can be an informal sounding board.
  • Be upfront. In the first few months of childcare, children will pick up every bug that is going.  Agree what the plan is for when their child is unwell and how you’re going to manage it within the team.
  • Remember it’s a time of transition and it can take time for confidence to return.
  • Be willing to have a conversation about flexibility. Flexible working doesn’t necessarily mean less hours or working from home.  It might mean starting 30 mins later and working 30 mins more. Small allowances can have a huge impact.
  • Have a conversation about goals and aspirations.  Some women want to take a step back when they return whereas others are keen to continue their career progression.  Again, don’t assume – it’s always best to ask directly.

 

It can be a good idea to suggest a trial period. Often managers can be reluctant to agree something up front in case it doesn’t work out

 

Colleagues can at times feel resentful of parents who are given flexibility to leave the office early/come in later around creche/school pick up times. What is the best way to handle this, both from a personal and employer point of view?

For employers I’d say focus on the benefits.  Research shows that where flexibility is offered, women are 30% more likely to aspire to high-level positions, plus engagement levels increase when organisations show they value working parents.

However, one of the key messages in our Managing Inclusively session is that it’s not just about working parents. We encourage managers to create a culture where people respect the needs of everyone in the team, and try to avoid letting unconscious (or conscious) bias influence our behaviour.

For individuals I encourage them to think about the needs of the business, as well as their own. When broaching the subject of flexibility it’s up to you to consider the role that you do; think about where your customers are based; what working flexibly might mean.

For example leaving an hour earlier for crèche pick up might mean that you agree to do an hour of work in the evenings – this might suit the business if you work with colleagues in different time zones. The more that you can show the benefit to the business and how this might work, the more likely your manager and team will agree.

Finally, it can be a good idea to suggest a trial period. Often managers can be reluctant to agree something up front in case it doesn’t work out. Suggesting a 6 week trial can be helpful for both parties.

 

Are there any Mumager events planned in the coming months that we should be aware of? 

As well as our in-house workshops for clients we run a quarterly Open Programme in Dublin. This is ideal for smaller organisations who couldn’t run their own programme. Keep in touch with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and FB for dates, and you can find out more information at www.mumager.ie

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