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A mother of a problem?


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

Returning to work after a baby can be tricky.

Returning to work after a baby can be tricky.

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.

A third of mums work for organisations that aren’t family friendly. 

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.

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?

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

32 comments so far

  • It is interesting and disappointing that the measure of what is best for the kids is how well they do at school. The problem is that by the time you discover what is best for your own kids, it is too late. The back-to-work lobby continues to try and find assurances for their followers i.e. if your kid does well at school then you are a good parent. Kids need much more than that, much of which can only be provided by a stay-at-home mother.

    Date and time
    March 16, 2012, 10:49AM
    • Could not agree more! Well said.

      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 2:08PM
    • Stiremup and Eagle,
      Shame on you. These black and white opinions are the types of comments that put ridiculously unrealistic pressure on mothers - as if there is not enough already.
      Some of us simply can't afford to stay at home. Some of us are better people, and therefore better mothers, if we have the intellectual and social stimulation that work provides. And, in my experience, many children thrive in care through learning from and interacting with their peers. It builds confidence, independence and resilience.
      And flexibility - which it sounds like you could do with a bit of.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2012, 11:13AM
  • 'The workplace moves on' ... this is the most bogus red herring 'impediment' often cited by those wishing to advance against colleagues who've taken maternity leave.

    Most corporate workplaces after 12 months are ridiculously exactly the same, including the same tedious politics.

    How long does it take to get used to the new version of Microsoft Word? Not very bloody long.

    (And don't get me started on face time. Parents who take parenting seriously use their office time productively. They don't loiter around others' workstations, they don't take extended lunches, and they ARE aware when you cavil behind their backs that they are leaving 'early' - read, 'on time'.)

    Date and time
    March 16, 2012, 10:59AM
    • "How long does it take to get used to the new version of Microsoft Word? Not very bloody long"... So Agent99 makes it very clear where they see women contributing to the workforce - as a WPO. Apart from which their contention is wrong. From the early '80s workplace research AND practice has shown that leaving workers to bumble their way through a new software package is neither efficient nor cost-effective... If they're sent off to learn a new software package in a self-paced program, then returned to the workplace, they are almost invariably faced with having to clear their work backlog which has accumulated. Alternatively having to 'pick up' the new functions on the job, is still inefficient and not cost effective. In both cases, because of output/time pressures, it has been shown that such operators resort to the functions they know well, as well as developing customised shortcuts relying on their existing knowledge to complete their tasks. They never get to practicing/perfecting the more sophisticated functions of upgraded packages. So they lose and their employer loses.
      Would love to sit in on Agent99's conversations with Tanya Plebersek, Hillary Clinton, Heather Ridout, Gail Kelly etc. to hear how they mastered their new versions of Word!
      Time to join the 21st Century Agent99!!

      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 6:55PM
    • Agreed. Funny how the 'leaving early' comments are directed only at women but the number of men that I work with that actually really do leave early, work from home when the kids are on holidays/sick, have time off for school functions etc is very high but they're seen to be good and involved dads. The mums are considered slackers.

      Hunting Aliens
      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 9:48PM
  • Actually, a number of qualitative studies have shown that many mothers of young children are quite happy to stay at home with their pre-school children with all the attendant benefits this provides to their child's emotional and behavioural development.
    Heresy though it may be, work isn't everything, sunshine!

    Date and time
    March 16, 2012, 11:21AM
    • You are mixing up several different issues.

      The concerns of women returning to work after a year or less, are vastly different to those who return after many years.

      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 11:50AM
      • Better? Having to keep working to pay off the mortgage?

        Interesting idea of better!

        Date and time
        March 16, 2012, 12:37PM
        • Women should stay at home for the first 1 year (with 9 months of mandatory breast feeding).

          On a side note the glass ceiling is a myth puported by feminists.

          Date and time
          March 16, 2012, 12:47PM

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