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02nd Jun 2016

Returning to work after maternity leave: 9 tips to help you totally nail it

Fiona McGarry

Returning to work after maternity leave can create more of ‘The Fear’ than a lifetime of Sunday nights. Juggling the 9-to-5 (and the politics that go with it) while struggling with guilt, insecurity and baby brain is enough to throw anyone off their game.

The good news, according to career coach Jane Downes, is that organisations are now putting more work-life balance measures in place: “They’re realising that a burnt-out mother is no good to them. It’s a no-brainer for them to be a little more flexible.” To get that flexibility, though, Jane advises working smarter, and making sure – if possible, before you take maternity leave – that you’re an indispensable member of the team.

Jane has just returned from maternity leave to her role as Principal Coach with Clearview Coaching Group. Here’s her expert advice on surviving the return to the workforce:

1. Taper your return, don’t go cold turkey

“What’s involved here would be holding back some of your maternity leave so that instead of going from zero to 100 overnight – which is a killer – you go back slowly,” Jane advises. “If you can organise it, come back for three days or four days for the first six weeks or so. Then work yourself back up to a five-day week.

“You’ll also show yourself and your employer that this might work in the long term. You could sit down with your boss and show them exactly what you were able to get done on the three or four-day week. You could ask that you keep going like that for six months, or indefinitely. It’s all in the negotiation.”

2. Reassert yourself

“There can be power play and real problems with getting your role and your status back,” Jane acknowledges. “The reality is that business goes on. You can be forgotten about quite easily once you’re on leave. In that case, you have to reassert yourself. This can be a key time to re-formulate your career plan and remind your boss what an asset you are to the team.”

3. Work smart

“Women have to work smart because we have so many things going on outside of the workplace,” Jane says. “There are so many demands on us. We have to make sure we’re indispensible in our work. That doesn’t mean working long hours, but it does mean being very effective. You need to start building that early on, long before you go on leave or get pregnant. Aim to earn a good reputation at what you do by working smartly. I believe that if you get really good at what you do, you’ll get greater flexibility from the boss.”

4. Do a ‘guilt detox’

“Watch the second guessing what you do when you’re full of guilt about going back to work,” Jane advises. “Detox yourself of that because it doesn’t help one bit. Remind yourself that you’re making your children proud of you and that you’re working to give them a better future.”

5. Go easy on yourself

“Sometimes you might be back at work and it’s tough because you’ve left your baby, you still have ‘baby brain’ and you feel like half the person that you were,” Jane admits. “The reality is you’re still perfectly capable of doing what you do. Remember that you are employed for a reason and it’ll all come back to you very quickly. Be kind to yourself.”

6. Value yourself

“I would really encourage women to put a greater value on themselves and to work on getting this right. While on leave, we’ve been at home doing the most important job, essentially and running an empire, with all the soft skills that we’ve honed. Women can have a fear of being exposed at work because they have so much more going on outside of it, but in reality, they’re brilliant.”

7. Tie down your childcare

“From a childcare point of view, I think we have to minimise the impact for our employers,” Jane advises. “That’s not their issue, it’s yours. I know I sound a bit hard in saying that, but where women can go wrong is not having it locked in place and being constantly worried about childcare. Employers have enough on their plate, without having to worry about that. Then, if you’re indispensable to your employer and your child is sick and you need to be at home, your boss is much more likely to be flexible.”

8. Make your job work for you

Jane notes that some women will find a five-day week is no longer an option. “Often women are brilliantly skilled and adding real value, but they’re afraid to ask for a three-day week or a four-day week,” she says. “If you go to the boss with a solution and point out what you can do during that shorter working week – and that you’re saving the company money – you make it impossible for the employer to say no.”

9. Take time to re-evaluate

“What can happen is that women go back to work because they have to and, a few months in, they realise they actually hate their job and they’re missing their children. Something has to give.” Jane says. “They might come out of the workplace if they can afford it. If they can’t, they have to try and make the job work better for them. Or they put a plan in place to change careers. That might take time.

“As women, we don’t always invest in ourselves. Everyone else tends to come first. Investing in career coaching could be an option, but there’s stuff you can do yourself. You need to find time to set yourself straight and avoid the input of people around you who have their own agendas.  It is important to take time to re-plan and re-navigate.”

Jane Downes is one of Ireland’s best-known Career Coaches and author of The Career Book– Help for the Restless Realist. She owns Clearview Coaching Group, which she established in 2004 following an extensive career working in the area of recruitment and HR consulting. Jane also contributes regularly to TV, radio and online media.

Jane Downes