What does it take to make a successful return to work after maternity leave?

I’ve been talking to a number of businesses lately whose focus is on supporting those going on extended leave and in particular their return. There are numerous initiatives organisations can introduce that make a real difference (workshops and employee networks to name a couple) – but what about individuals? What can we do to help ourselves?

Going back to work after looking after your new child is tough. Even if you love your job and have the most supportive team going.  Even if part of you is really looking forward to getting back to work. Therein lies the first clue. It’s not just about you anymore. So you may feel guilty about being excited about going back to work, even before you step through the office door. I know I did. Did that make me a bad mother? Had I chosen the right balance between work and home? How would that effect both parts of my world? Your emotions play a big part in this. And if you step back for a moment, this is a good thing. It will help you bring more to your role (more on that another time) but it’s important to let your rational brain play its part too. So what can you do?

1. Start before you go

Some conversations are much easier to have before you disappear on extended leave. You are likely to need more flexibility when you come back, formally or informally. If you already have an idea what that looks like for you, start sounding out colleagues and peers before you go. Think about your key stakeholders too – what are their concerns likely to be? Is there anything you can do to allay those now?

2. And do some prep before your first day back –

You might feel you shouldn’t have to but if you take the initiative you’ll walk back in feeling more confident which has to be a good thing. What am I talking about? Arrange a catch up / pop in with your baby and find out what’s changed since you left. Who are the new team members, has the business restructured, what are the current major projects / priorities? Set up meetings with your key stakeholders for your first week back. And check on the practical stuff – the IT – is everything going to be good to go on Day 1 or will you be left awkwardly feeling like the new girl / boy but probably worse as everyone will expect you to sort it out yourself?

3. Make use of KIT days and accrued annual leave –

KIT days are a great way to do that prep and slowly reintegrate, particularly if your team has regular meetings or offsites. You can also use them as a way of doing a few days a week before you go back to your full pattern (whatever that may be), and test out your childcare arrangements so when you’re properly back you have one less thing to worry about. The same goes for annual leave. You accrue a lot while you’re off (including public holidays) and it’s worth considering adding it to the end of your leave either in a block or in odd days.

4. Remember nothing lasts forever –

When you first go back it’s tempting to think you have to get everything right immediately so that your new work/home arrangement will work all round. The reality is like anything new, it evolves and changes, and you need to evolve and adapt with it. You don’t have to get everything right on day one.

5. Be honest with yourself and others about what you need –

Whether it’s the hours you want to work or at what pace, avoid assumptions being made – because you can guarantee they will be if you don’t make it clear.

6. Seek out support – from others in the same boat.

If your organisation has a parent or family network and / or offers transition workshops, sign up. If they don’t there’ll always be others like you, even if not in the same team / department. And whether it’s a regular coffee with someone who’s “been there done that”, or a chat between meetings with a colleague who’s also recently come back and “gets it”, finding those you can share moments with or even just a knowing look can make all the difference – so make it one of your priorities in your first few weeks back to build yourself a network.

By Catherine Oliver – facilitator at Educating Matters specialising in maternity coaching and work-life balance

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