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How to support employees returning from maternity leave?

27-11-2023|Anthony Gougeon

Welcoming a child is a momentous occasion and parental leave ensures that employees can fully focus their attention on their family dynamics. When they return to work, it is possible – and normal – that they find it difficult to manage existing and new responsibilities: it can be an emotional and stressful time for them as they learn to navigate a new balance between home and work.

Businesses can help make the transition easier by offering a more structured approach to returning to work, which will benefit parents, their colleagues, the business and its clients by managing expectations and setting up a clear support system for everyone.

At Ultimate Finance, we have set out what employees can expect in our People Promise, our internal charter that ensures we prioritise the development and health and well-being of our teams. Our Maternity and Partners Leave Policy encourages parents to take more time off to bond with their children, takes the pressure off partners and helps retain working parents as they build a career with us knowing we will support them as their family life evolves.

Legal counsel Alice Kirk recently welcomed a baby girl and discusses how she has been managing her return to work:

“I was away from Ultimate Finance for just over a year. This was my third baby and there was plenty already keeping me busy at home with two older boys and an active household. After my daughter arrived, I re-classified mornings when I had to get my three children out of the house by 8.15am on my own as a new sport!

Returning to work is an emotional time, full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, all fighting for position, guilt and the feeling of abandoning your kids, to name but a few. A lot of questions come up, for instance, ‘how will we all adapt to Mummy going back to work?’, ‘Am I making the right decision going back to work?’, ‘How am I going to fit it all in?’.

‘Third time of being off, she’s got it sorted’ I hear you say. No, not exactly! Returning to work after a long period away isn’t easy.  The question for me was not whether I would go back to work but how I was going to go back to work and the practicalities of it. I won’t lie, I was worried about it so what did I do about it and what have I learnt?”

Using KIT (“Keeping in Touch”) days

Although there is no legal obligation for employers to offer Keeping In Touch days (or for an employee to accept them), the law allows for up to 10 days’ work to be agreed between both parties to help ease a return to work. Alice explains, “I never used them during previous maternity leave periods. It didn’t work for me at the time but this time around, I had an opportunity to use some and I did, using 6 in total, roughly one a week, 10 months into my maternity leave. Did it make returning to work less daunting? It did. Did it help me ease myself back in? It did!

I won’t lie, it was a shock to the system. When I first logged back on, I felt overwhelmed; I was not quite sure where to start and I couldn’t remember how to log onto certain apps or how to do certain seemingly easy tasks. My inbox just kept updating, and updating, and updating. But I was able to assist with self-contained tasks and relieve the pressure ever so slightly in terms of team workload, which felt good.

It was nice to chat about work again, realise that ‘brain fog’ wasn’t permanent (!) and see I hadn’t forgotten all the law, and, let’s face it, a hot cup of tea to drink in peace and quiet! And it was just one day at a time.

Looking back now, I really value these KIT days. They made my journey back into work really positive.”

A phased return to work

Communication is key and can make a return to work much easier to handle for everyone: setting clear expectations for every party means that everyone knows what needs to happen. When welcoming back an employee, it is important to discuss with them how they are feeling, how their family is handling the new dynamics and to share with them how flexible their team and the business can be to accommodate their initial requirements.

Alice continues, “ My main worry was returning too quickly and ending up having a really hard time a few months down the line.  I put a proposal together which set out a phased return to work, starting with 2 days a week and building back up to my usual 4-day week over approximately 7 weeks, using accumulated holiday to plug the gaps. My manager had no hesitation in agreeing to it. I was so relieved!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I wish I had discussed a phased return for previous maternity leave periods. This phased return has meant:

  • Getting back to full capacity slowly but surely. The opportunity was there to take things one at a time, not taking too much on in one go but with a view of building up the volume of work taken on at any one time;
  • Everyone at home got the opportunity to get used to “Mummy going back to work”. After a year of always being around, the new routine was strange for everyone and something to get used to gradually. I wasn’t always going to be around anymore;
  • Increasing the mental and physical impacts of work slowly. I was exhausted initially, and it’d often get to about mid-afternoon and feel like I needed a nap!

Did it work? Yes! A really positive experience for me. I had had time to sort things out at home, “break-in” the new routine, the children seemed happy and, when I got to the end of the day, it didn’t feel like I’d been ‘hit by a bus’. I felt ready to take on my 4 days again, and take on the workload and its challenges, so much so that by the end, I was keen to get back to my usual 4-day week, testament of a successful return I think!”

 Celebrating your supporters

Feedback is valuable, both in business and in life, and it is always important to take a step back to recognise the people that have played a significant role in pivotal moments of our lives. Businesses should ensure that they provide opportunities for teams to acknowledge and celebrate each other to keep morale high and help retain employees. At Ultimate Finance we do this by nominating exceptional behaviours in our monthly value awards, whereby everyone has the opportunity to publicly commend someone else in the business and give them the chance to win a monthly prize, but, most importantly, to know the difference they have made in someone else’s life.

Alice says, “My manager, Polly, played a huge part in making my return to work positive. It went so well. On my first official day back, despite the fact she was in an all-day meeting, she took the time to call me for a chat, make sure I was coping, inform me of some important changes, talk about workload. She also regularly checked in to make sure I wasn’t overloaded, and happy with things.

While I am sure most managers take the time to check in, chat and make sure you are ok, I can’t stress enough how much it means on a professional, and a personal, level to have that chat and hear the words ‘it’s nice to have you back’.

 He may not be a work colleague, but very much a ‘life colleague’ – my husband took three months off during our daughter’s first year which he took towards the end of her first year. This meant there was an opportunity for me to do the KIT days I mentioned above, do things for me (a novelty!) and most importantly, make the most of our children! His support and encouragement during this time of change were invaluable to me, and I can’t thank him enough. So huge shout-out to partners, husbands, better halves and/or other halves. I couldn’t have done it without you!”

How can your business support parents returning to work?

  • Set clear expectations in your parental leave policies for families to prepare before and after they welcome a new child
  • Consider setting up KIT days to help parents and colleagues transition back
  • Flexibility and communication can help make the difference
  • Offer ways for colleagues to recognise supportive people in their lives


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