It wasn’t that long ago (the years leading up to 1966) that women working for the public service had to quit once they got married. Today, life for a working woman is better – still not equitable enough – but better. One challenge they face now is their return to the workforce after maternity leave.
Some of them aren’t prepared for how much they’ll miss their kids while they’re at work. Others are surprised at the degree to which the workplace has moved on. Their old job has changed. The processes are different. Their relationships aren’t what they used to be. And then there are women who don’t have any of those problems. Theirs is simply an issue of balance, or rather, imbalance.
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute released findings last year that showed a third of mums work for organisations that aren’t family friendly. The stating-the-obvious conclusion from the study of 1300 women was that these mothers were twice as likely to suffer from psychological distress.
According to an analysis of thousands of households by the Melbourne Institute, more and more women are returning to the workforce sooner. Thankfully, not as soon as Rachida Dati. You might remember her as the 43-year-old French politician who, in 2009, went back to work a few days after having a caesarian.
But what’s best for the kids? That’s the ultimate question – and the research on that is quite mixed. A study conducted at Essex University found that children were slower learners when their mums returned to work before the kids reached the age of three.
And yet, contrary to that, researchers at Columbia University tracked children’s development from the time they were born until they entered primary school, and concluded that working mums were a good thing. Here’s why. Household income was higher, they could now afford superior childcare and the mothers’ mental health improved. The outcome was an enhanced home life characterised by better relationships.
There is the alternative argument, too. The one that advocates the cutting back of maternity leave. These are the people who believe that giving birth is a lifestyle choice. If women leave work to give birth, they can’t reasonably expect their job to remain on hold until they’re ready to return a year or two later. Or so the argument goes.
But surely a well-functioning society requires workplaces to support new parents. And, when an employee is especially talented, it’s in an employer’s best interest to have that person come back. Even from a purely macroeconomic perspective, it’s essential we have a high rate of employment participation, and that means making it easier for mums to have a job.
Emma Walsh, the director of mums@work, specialises in return-to-work programs. She suggests employers should become more flexible. But there’s also a lot that women can do themselves to make their transition back into the workplace somewhat smoother. She gave me three main tips.
1. Before you go on leave, have a conversation with your employer about your return. Propose a few potential options for greater flexibility and explain how any drawbacks will be overcome. Get involved in finding your replacement so that “you have input into how your job will be performed in your absence”.
2. Create a return-to-work plan. Identify what needs to be done and the support you require. “Be realistic and give yourself time and space needed to work through it.”
3. While you’re on leave, stay in touch with your employer. Check in monthly with the person who replaced you, as well as your colleagues, so that you’re in the loop. Ask for systems access to view emails from home, and if you can, return to work gradually – initially just one or two days a week.
A third of mums work for organisations that aren’t family friendly.
It’s true what that say. A woman’s work is never done.
How have you found returning to work after a baby? And, if you’re an employer, how has maternity leave affected your business?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis