Returning to work after maternity leave used to involve a period of resettling, reconnecting and for many, re-establishing: face-to-face contact was crucial. Returning to work in lockdown, of course, has been a completely different story, writes MaryLou Costa.
For thousands of women across the UK, working from home has become the norm. As bars reopen, gym classes fill up and staycations become 2021’s city break du jour, naturally our thoughts turn to our working lives as one of the last pieces of the pandemic puzzle to see lasting change. It remains to be seen when this part of our routine might go back to ‘normal’ (who knows what it means these days…).
Returning to work after maternity leave invokes a Pandora’s box of conflicting emotions. For many it’s a chance to re-establish their identity outside the parenting domain and regain the mental stimulation and social interaction that comes with working in an office – in my experience, losing the latter can make maternity leave an isolating experience. But The Big Return can also be fraught with a dizzying array of guilt and nervousness over leaving your child in care and what your return to work will look like.
Thanks to ongoing coronavirus restrictions, new mums can add another thing to that list of worries: navigating a virtual return to work.
Jessica Chivers, chief executive of The Talent Keeper Specialists, psychologist and author of return to work guide Mothers Work!, provides coaching for women returning to work after maternity leave. “Some of the unique challenges we’re hearing are, ‘I’ve just gone back into a new team – I don’t know how to get in because I’m on the outside’. Or, ‘How do I prove myself in a new role, when I can’t just go and pick up incidental information in the kitchen, or by being pulled into a last minute meeting’,” she explains.
Returning to work virtually has created anxiety around getting back up to speed, gelling with new teams, and the ability to advance professionally – with a computer screen a hindrance rather than a help, Chivers tells me. Sharing the experiences of women returning to work from maternity leave has always been a key part of Chivers’ sessions. But now, more than ever, she believes it’s vital to normalise the extra wave of concerns women are finding themselves wading through.
“Sharing those experiences shows women they’re not alone – others are experiencing this. People are also talking things out with me that they want to talk out with their line manager, so our sessions have become a place to vent, to rant, to be a sounding board - and to keep them feeling comforted.”
And Chivers is right to worry about women returning to work. According to charity Mind, working parents – both new and established – have become more vulnerable to mental health issues. “New parents have absolutely had a challenging time, and things aren’t getting easier. They’re getting more complicated, especially if you have kids of different ages with different schooling and care options. In our research, if working parents were reporting poor mental health, the reasons were around work,” Emma Mamo, Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing, tells me.
Kathryn Imrie, who recently returned to her corporate role after her third maternity leave, understands this pressure all too well. “My life is blurred. It’s not ‘here’s work and here’s family’. That’s not how it works anymore,” she says. “And with this pandemic, everyone’s life is now blurred.”
With three children under seven, Imrie returned to work on a four-day basis due to fewer childcare options. This change to her working pattern was met willingly by her employer, who she says has been quick to adapt and reassure, despite her pre-return worries exacerbated by Covid-19.
“The leadership team really understands the need to be even more connected to the thoughts and feelings of our teams right now. We have conducted a number of surveys with employees to get a clear understanding of how they’re feeling and where we can help,” she says.
“It’s why I feel it’s important to pay it forward and discuss my own experiences, because anyone, at any level of seniority or stage of their career can feel unsettled when returning. As I have progressed in my career, I feel freer and braver to share - and feel I have a responsibility to.”
And I totally get it. From my own experience of maternity leave, feeling your managers are on your side is everything when it comes to taking at least one burden off your shoulders of the many you’re bound to feel you’re carrying as a returning mum. Before I waddled out of my last day in the office, I had already begun conversations with my managers about flexible, part time working, which took away much of the anxiety about returning.
But the responsibility doesn’t just lie with the women who are returning to work. Helen Matthews, chief people officer at advertising agency Ogilvy, tells me she’s rolled out a new level of manager training to provide extra support for both maternity leave and furlough returners. “It’s about getting our line managers to speak honestly with their teams to understand what’s making them anxious, and how we can make that better and to make sure everyone has a career conversation as we roll back in, so we can make sure we’re talent locking and opportunities don’t just go to the person that’s in front of their boss at the time.
“Because that is a real concern to people - what if I’m out of sight, out of mind?”
So the pandemic has undoubtably reshaped women returning from maternity leave. How can working women reduce their anxiety about returning to work after a period off?
Jessica Chivers gives these four practical tips:
See your family as a team
It isn’t all up to you. If you have a partner, open a conversation about changing domestic arrangements with, “When we’re both working, how do you see us sharing the domestic load?” No partner? Think about who else would be happy to support you and remember relationships deepen when we’re big enough to ask for or accept help.
Get a grip on guilt
You’ll have thought carefully about the work choices you’ve made so cling to that bigger, positive picture when the inevitable guilt creeps up. Accept that a certain amount is inevitable – especially if you’re highly self-critical - and that it’s likely to reduce over time.
Prepare for a smooth return
Set a date and stick to it, and use accrued holiday for a phased return. Start preparing four weeks ahead and use a paper week-to-view diary as a place to write to-do lists rather than relying on memory. Be kind to yourself because this is a huge life event you’re going through.
Do what it takes to thrive
Forget what other families are doing: work out what rest and play you need in those first months and do it. When at work focus on work and when at home focus on family, fun and self-care (and spend as much as you can afford on things that preserve your precious time).
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