In the last few days my social media feeds have been a bit of a flurry with the research published by SMA Nutrition that 52% women are working while on maternity leave. You can read more about this here, here, and here.
In a nutshell, the survey indicated that of 966 women who had a baby in the previous 12 months; 52% were involved in work of some form or another – whether that’s responding to calls (25%), checking emails (24%), going into the office (10%) or keeping up to date with company goings-on and relevant research (15%)*.
Looking at the facts at hand here, it’s quite hard to tell exactly what is going on. It’s a relatively small sample and there’s no reference to where the sample is taken from and how women were selected. Irrespective of this however, it does raise some interesting questions…
WHY ARE MORE THAN HALF OF WOMEN SURVEYED WORKING DURING THEIR MATERNITY LEAVE:
Out of interest or necessity;
Of their own volition or under duress;
If duress, perceived or actual?
In the Irish Times article, Jennifer O’Connell suggests that this (working) might be a symptom of anxiety and guilt:
“I suspect this is a reflection of the anxiety and guilt women still feel about taking maternity leave. In the SMA study, 46 per cent of women said they felt “nervous”, “anxious” or “concerned” telling their employers about their pregnancy. Unfortunately, that anxiety is often well placed.
No matter what the legislation says, many women internalise the message, from the very earliest stage in their career, that maternity leave is an inconvenience to their employer, rather than a fundamental right.”
The reasons why a woman might feel anxious or guilty about taking time off from work are as varied as their individual circumstances; type of employment, career, company culture etc. For women employed by a third party in Ireland, maternity leave is typically somewhere between 6 months to a year (and possibly more if supplemented with Parental Leave). For those in self-employment it can often be much less – and in some cases minimal.
As I sit here on my laptop in a cafe with my littlest baba snoozing in the buggy beside me, I can honestly say we have been doing this (working with baba in buggy or sling) since he was around 6 weeks old. But then, personally I have chosen to use my maternity leave to establish my own company, and many women I know are self-employed and can’t afford (financially or strategically) to take much, if any, time out.
But going back to women employed by a third party brings me to some more important questions….
WHY IS IT THAT JUST UNDER HALF HAVE NOT BEEN IN CONTACT WITH WORK OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR MATERNITY LEAVE:
IS IT OUT OF LACK OF INTEREST, ON BOTH OR EITHER PARTY;
OF THEIR OWN VOLITION OR UNDER DURESS….
HOW DO THEY FEEL ABOUT THIS SITUATION?
For most of these women, they will be away for at least 6 months if not longer…and this is a looong time. From the perspective of having a baby and becoming a parent it can seem like both an eternity and the blink of an eye. But, from the perspective of being away from work…well, just think about how you feel the night before you go back to work after a two-week holiday. Out of the loop? Never gonna remember your IT password? Living ‘the fear’? Multiply that by around 12 and that brings you to the end of statutory maternity leave…and sure throw into the mix leaving your previous bundle and a feeling of not having slept in years!!
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that – is it really all that better to have had little or no contact with your employer? For your confidence, anxiety and stress levels, and for your comfort and wellbeing in transitioning back to work…I really don’t think so!
So, what can we do about this?
If you are reading this as an employee - a parent on, or about to go on, extended leave; I would say to you that as employees, we can do very little to alter our employers’ perception – but we can take definite steps to positively alter our own. And in the process hopefully show another side of taking time out from work for family…
If you agree, here is a very brief snapshot of how you might do this:
Have a think about what is going to help you transition out and back in to the workplace
Talk to your employer about their expectations
Agree a communications plan with your boss before you go on leave
Stick to the above plan and refer your employer back to it if they veer off course
If you are in the process of planning your return, here are more tips for you.
If you are reading this as an employer; it is also worth mentioning that 64% of mums surveyed felt that motherhood improved their work performance! Is this a missed opportunity perhaps? Over the coming weeks I will be looking more in-depth at what you can do to maximise the strength of your team during periods of transition relating to family leave.
This is an important topic, and one close to my heart having returned to work twice myself; and having worked with many parents who have struggled with confidence and anxiety around returning to work. Over the next while I am going to dedicate a portion of the blog to looking more in-depth at family leave (maternity, paternity, parental leave), both from an employer and employee perspective and what can be done to better manage transitions out of and back into the workplace. Subscribe to the mailing list below for more information and updates...
*In the interests of full disclosure, I have not actually read the research findings – a search of google is throwing up nothing for me (must need to refine my technique!). If you have seen it, please send me the link 🙂
Claire Flannery is the Founder and Owner of Strength Within coaching and consultancy, where she focuses on helping people create the headspace and mental clarity to discover, cultivate and maximise their strength within. She is a qualified Business Psychologist, Executive, Business & Personal Coach and Gentlebirth Instructor with over a decade of experience working in HR leadership in Financial Services. She is also a Mum to two small boys and has personal experience of successfully managing her career while preparing to transition out of, and back into, the workforce; and is passionate about helping people to successfully navigate the huge identity and life transition involved in starting and growing a family. As a large part of her work, she is privileged to work with women and their partners as they make their journey through pregnancy, birth and early parenting. Along with Coaching services, she runs Gentlebirth and Return-to-Work workshops in Dublin, Ireland.