Whether you've been on leave yourself or are covering a colleague's position, the end of maternity leave can be a career minefield. Here, experts give advice to help navigate you through the transition.
When you're returning to your role
“Having a career break gives you space to reflect on your priorities, so you can return to work clearer about how you want your career to progress and how you can implement positive changes in your role,” says Katerina Gould, founder of career consultancy Thinking Potential. You’re probably desperate to banish notions about “baby brain” and reassume your authority with staff not used to taking direction from you. So how do you steer this tricky territory?
The preparation begins before your first day back. Utilise your 10 paid keeping in touch (KIT) days to have update meetings with your boss, colleagues and maternity cover so you’re aware of any major changes and won’t be met with any surprises on your first day back. This also promotes a sense of partnership with your maternity cover, which will prove useful during the handover period.
While ideally you’d be able to pick up exactly where you left off, a survey by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) found that one in three women return to find their job unrecognisable from the one they left. The same number felt their “relationship with their boss had deteriorated” and “promotion prospects were reduced”. To avoid this, schedule sit-downs with your team three weeks before you return. Your message should be: “A lot can happen in 12 months, but I care about this job and need your help to catch up”.
"We all secretly hope the person covering us will do an adequate – but not brilliant – job. But thank them for the hard work they've done."
Leave your ego at home for the handover period. We all secretly hope the person covering us will do an adequate – but not brilliant – job. It can be galling to discover everyone loves your replacement. This emotional minefield is compounded by the fact you could be doing a handover with someone who secretly hoped you wouldn’t come back. Be sensitive to the fact they are now being downgraded or searching for a new job. “Acknowledge that this must be really tough,” says Gould. “Show an interest in their plans, and thank them for the hard work they’ve done. Make it clear you want to be an ally to their career progression.”
Steel yourself for changes, too. Bekki Clark, author of The Mum’s Guide To Returning To Work says, “It’s natural to feel possessive over your role, but don’t automatically dismiss all changes. You won’t win friends by casting off new procedures just because you weren’t involved in them.” And how to deal with colleagues who don’t seem to recognise your authority? “Give them the benefit of the doubt for the first week,” says Clark. “Leaving your name off an email could easily be an oversight. If it continues, schedule a private meeting and say, ‘It’s my job to be able to help you, so I’d appreciate you keeping me informed.’”
You may be tempted to come back with a bang – implementing an exciting new project – in order to make your mark again, but resist as the first few weeks are likely to be emotionally challenging. “The biggest pitfalls for working mums occur when they feel the need to prove themselves to their employer or please everyone at home and at work, which can quickly lead to exhaustion and resentment,” says Gould. Don’t overburden yourself. “Shape your expectations into specific results that will help rebuild your confidence and credibility at work.”
When you've been covering someone else's role
Maternity cover is a fantastic opportunity to test the waters of a challenging new position, and six to 12 months is enough time to make the job your own. The flipside of this is that it’s a wrench to leave and begin job hunting, or – as is increasingly the case – return to a position which you feel you’ve outgrown. Don’t succumb to self-pity, however; you’re in a stronger position than you might imagine.
First things first: mothball your emotions for the handover period. Take into consideration that 39% of women polled in a NCT survey found going back to work after having a baby “difficult or very difficult”, so be sensitive to the fact that your returning colleague will be dealing with everything from the working mum blues to a feeling of being out of the loop along with the insecurity about the sterling job you may have done while replacing her.
“It’s not easy for either of you, but by maintaining your professional integrity you’ll keep your returning colleague – and everyone present – on your side,” says Clark. “And don’t be tempted to leave inadequate handover notes so that she’ll be dependent on you; it will be clear to others that you simply did a shoddy job of the handover and you’ll lose her as a potential office ally. If she’s not already, she could be your next boss.”
"These days employers are more willing to consider candidates who have proved themselves in a short time period."
If you’re leaving the workplace, don’t give the impression you’re demoralised at the prospect of job-hunting; instead say, “I’ll miss the office, but I’m excited about sourcing a job where I can put what I learned into practice”. You’re leaving a roomful of fantastic contacts, so stay upbeat, demonstrate faith in your abilities and you’ll be top of their list when vacancies next arise. Also, arrange a one-on-one with supportive colleagues and ask them if they can suggest any employers you should contact.
If you’re returning to a previous role, it’s all too easy to see this as a backslide. “In truth, many employers use maternity cover as a chance to test promising employees,” says Gould. Just make sure you don’t find yourself continuing to do the same job with a lesser title. Schedule an appraisal and explain that you took the role because you viewed it as career development and that you now hope for a higher level of opportunity in a role that will enable you to utilise your new skills and experience. “Keep your language positive, for instance, don’t say, ‘Now I feel bored and undervalued,’ say, ‘I’m keen to take on a new role where I feel fulfilled, motivated and challenged.’”
That said, it’s tough to no longer be in a position of higher authority and it’s not easy to relinquish responsibility. Give your employer a chance to prove to you that they intend to progress you. If, however, this isn’t forthcoming, consider looking elsewhere. Clark says, “Forget the old dictum that you need two years’ experience in a role to be taken seriously. These days employers are more willing to consider candidates who have proved themselves in a shorter time period. You’ll need excellent references from your current employers, which should be an additional incentive to wrap up this maternity cover like a true professional.”