25% of mums returning to work say their line managers were unsupportive through the transition.
60% feel less employable since having a child.
75% say it was harder to progress in their career.
47% have been made to feel guilty for leaving work to collect their child.
Over 35% felt their job was under threat.
Source: Mumsnet: Un-friendly Family Britain (2013)
“My boss no longer had time to supervise me.” “All the systems had changed and I was just expected to figure it out myself.” “There was no precedent for making my hours flexible, so it wasn’t an option for me.” These are just some of the stories commonly heard from women returning to work after maternity leave.
Even in businesses where the culture and infrastructure supports returning mothers – along with those returning to work following a career break, extended illness or sabbatical – experiences can often depend on the line manager or business unit they’re assigned to.
Whether you’ve a strong organisational protocol to follow or are feeling your way where managing a returner is concerned, taking some time to think about your approach is a great starting point for ensuring your employee has the best possible experience. “Set out to make sure your area offers the best support and to become a role model for other managers in the same situation,” says everywoman expert Sara Parsons.
1. WALK A MILE IN THEIR SHOES
It’s human nature to approach a challenging situation from your own perspective. As the date nears for your employee to return to their role, you might be wondering how you’ll juggle your workload with all the extra time you’ll need to spend with them. Perhaps you’re grappling with organising the expensive or extensive training they’ll need on new tools and systems. Or maybe you’re expecting them to apply for flexible working and you’re not sure how you’re going to respond.
“Swap perspectives,” says Sara Parsons “Take time to really think about what’s going on for them. Rather than thinking ‘Sue is probably thinking X,” put yourself in her shoes and try to really imagine where Sue might be coming from. What’s worrying her? What’s she feeling apprehensive about? What does she really need from you?”
Finally, try to take an objective, third-party stance. What would an outsider looking in think about this situation? If this exercise throws up no new solutions, perhaps you haven’t really walked for long enough in Sue’s shoes. Go back and challenge yourself to understand the world from her viewpoint. If you’re really struggling, invite a neutral party to challenge your thinking and see what opens up.
2. CHECK YOUR MINDSET
If negativity is creeping into your thoughts about your employee’s return to work, you’re not alone – 55% of everywomanNetwork members admit they need help shifting mindset. “The first step to solving that problem,” says Sara Parsons, “is acknowledging that there are some thoughts going on that might limit your ability to be a supportive manager, so really take an honest assessment of any baggage you might have.”
If you struggled through a return to work with minimal help, perhaps you have an expectation that everyone else should, or even feel resentful that you’re now in the position of supportive guide. Perhaps that’s coming through in closed body language, an aggressive tone, or setting tougher targets for the individual in question.
“You really need some self-awareness for this exercise to work,” says Sara Parsons. “But every time you have a thought like ‘It was her choice to have kids,’ or ‘She’s not going to be any good when she comes back,’ notice it then leave it at the door.”
3. STAMP OUT UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
Once you’ve worked on your own mindset, and can approach your employee’s transition back to work with sympathy, sensitivity and no judgement, it’s your responsibility, says Sara Parsons, to stamp out any negative behaviour you witness in others.
“I had a friend who, having had one operation, found out she had to have another,” she says. “She received comments like ‘Nice timing – that’s a good way to get out of doing your annual appraisals’.”
“With 8 out of 10 people saying that a cultural change is needed to reduce discrimination where maternity leave is concerned, you, as a line manager, can begin that process. Be a spokesperson for the returnee. Highlight what good support looks like. Be an advocate for returning mothers. If you come across someone with a chip on their shoulder, talk to that person about their thoughts and behaviours. Put yourself on the line to make sure they understand.”
4. BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT FLEXIBILITY
More and more employees are seeking flexibility in their workplaces, and as a line manager, it’s highly likely you’ll be approached at some point by someone wanting to take a different approach to standard hours and time off.
Managers often start from a position of seeing the potential problems, says Sara Parsons. But it’s important to understand the many benefits that a flexible working programme can bring – retaining skilled, experienced workers, for one’ affording your teams more control and less stress and pressure, for another.
The key thing in agreeing on any request for flexibility is that it works for everyone involved – the individual, the manager and the business. So before you agree to letting your employee work their contracted hours in fewer, longer days, start with a blank page and ask yourself what is really possible.
“I know someone who was offered an extra ten days unpaid holiday per year so that she could fit in all the various school functions she’d have to attend,” says Sara. “It’s really important that we think about flexibility holistically, so ask yourself: What else is available? What haven’t you thought about?”
5. MAKE SURE YOU’RE SUPPORTED TOO
If you’re managing a returner for the first time, or just want to do things differently this time around, you’re going to need some support – particularly if there are legal aspects that need to be covered off.
“Don’t think you should be able to do it all on your own,” says Sara. “When you’re not sure of the right thing to say or do, do what you would in any new situation – reach out and find support.”
That support might come from information found on websites, your HR representative, previous returners who can share their experiences, managers who’ve gone through this before you or your business mentor.
6. MAKE THAT FIRST DAY BACK COUNT
“I didn’t see my manager for a week – it was like she didn’t want to see me, because I was a problem.”
It’s very easy to ensure you don’t wind up with an employee feeling the way this one did, says Sara Parsons: “Mark the occasion of their first day back in the workplace. Say congratulations. Figure out how to let them know you’ve thought about them and you’re happy they’re back. Ask them what they need – do they want to dive straight in, look through emails or the minutes of a meeting?”
“Give them what they can to get them up to date – an induction, time and space to hold short meetings with everyone they need to get up to speed with. And if they haven’t given it any thought, think about that together.”
7. UNDERSTAND THE LONG TERM PLAN
More than 30% of returners felt that they were written off following their return to work. Your employee still wants a career path – their aspirations might have changed shape or they might not have. Have the conversation or find out when the right time would be to discuss the long-term plan. Be clear about what support you can offer – mentorship, career guidance and training – and follow up on your promises.
Listen on demand to everywoman expert Sara Parsons discussing some of these issues in our webinar Supporting those returning to work – for managers. Delve further into some of the issues facing returning mothers in the everywomanNetwork workbook Returning to work with confidence.
 Sara Parsons speaking in everywoman.com/my-development/webinars/supporting-those-returning-work-managers