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But whatever your reasons for returning to work after maternity leave, we know it’s an overwhelming time, one that is fraught with complex emotions, so we sat down with Jessica Chivers, founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists, author of Mothers Work! and host of Comeback Coach podcast to chat about how we can make the process as smooth as possible. Here are our survival tips for returning to work after maternity leave, no matter how long you’ve been away.
It’s important to hold space for whatever feelings we’re feeling when we’re returning to work after maternity leave but know that we shouldn’t assign guilt to our decisions to do so. Jessica says we need to accept that a certain level of guilt is inevitable but adds that sometimes when we think we’re feeling guilty, we’re actually feeling dissatisfied, sad or frustrated.
She explains: “We need to expect guilty feelings to pass. I think sometimes guilt can be a really good feeling, because it makes us stop and think is there a better alternative? Am I making the right decision? Have I really thought about this? And then if you can go into kind of head mode rather than heart. Guilt comes from the heart, but it can make us think right, what are my options here?”
Jess’ advice? “Stand back and look at the big picture. Think why am I going back to work? Think about what you’re getting for your identity, how it’s going to make you a better parent, because you’re getting some time out, you’re being a role model for your child, and do all of that thinking standing back. Then when guilt grips you in the moment, you can stand back and go, this is this is not a very nice feeling in the moment right now. But I know why I made this decision. Because guilt is often just something we feel in the moment, it’s usually triggered by something very specific.”
A phased return is a really common way to ease back into work life, but it can be complex navigating contract amendments. One trick to avoid this? Using any leave accrued during your maternity leave. “I do think a phased return is essential”, says Jessica. “So say you’ve accrued 20 days, you might use those 20 days for your first your first three months, for example. You’re just using that accrued holiday to shorten the week. And I think that that’s a really great thing to do, because you ease yourself back in gently.”
When you’re doing that phased return, Jess suggests putting your child into their childcare for the full amount of time they’ll be there when you’re back up to speed: “Take that time for yourself to decompress, to iron out things at home, to read your emails or do a bit more work stuff but not in work time. Don’t max yourself out by thinking “well, I’m not at work. I can’t possibly put my child in childcare”.”
The other thing to consider is whether you return to work after maternity leave full or part time. Not only do you have to consider what this means for your finances, but the honest truth is it’s important to consider what this means for the business too. Whatever you decide, think about what’s motivating you to want to work that way, and think about what would make the prospect appealing to your line manager or the decision maker at your company. Demonstrate that you’ve thought about the wider implications of your decision. Show that you’ve thought about how you can make this work and how it might even be good for the team and the business.
Things change quickly in a work environment and after a long time away, we can feel over-faced by these changes. We don’t know where we fit into things anymore and sometimes our goals and objectives may have changed. While this can feel overwhelming and scary, it can also be a huge opportunity to assess where we are and where we want to go. Returning to work after maternity leave can be a great chance to reassess our goals.
Jessica explains: “Let’s look a little bit further down the road. What would be a great day in, say, two years time? What would you be doing on a on a great day, on a day where you feel really well and really happy? What’s changed? Are you in a different role? Are you in a different team? What does that mean for what you need to start doing now? And what do you perhaps need to let go off? What do you need to do more of? Who do you need to be influencing? You don’t have to come back to exactly the same thing, and you probably don’t want to come back to exactly the same thing, because it’s not going to serve you getting to where you want to get next.”
She adds: “There’s a lesson about not necessarily feeling that you have to come back to the same thing. And if you don’t, you haven’t somehow failed, you aren’t not good enough because you haven’t gone back to everything that you used to do before”.
Think of the first few weeks as you finding the lay of the land. Be gentle with yourself and don’t expect yourself to get to grips with things immediately. Things have changed and you’ve changed too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the best things about coming back after maternity leave? You’ve got a great licence to get some face time with ANYONE you want to hit up in the business.
Use making time to catch up with people in the business to find out what’s been going on as part of your settling in process. Jessica says: “I think one of the most important things to do is to work out who are the people who are going to be instrumental to you settling back in to your role. So that’s probably your line manager, your cover, and it might be someone who’s buddying up with you. Then you’ve got people who are going to be instrumental to you being successful actually in role over the next few months – your peers, or it might be your direct reports. And then the third group, who I think often get overlooked are people who you think may be able to play a hand in your future career.”
And if you’re nervous about looking out of the loop or feel stupid because you don’t know what’s been going on while you’ve been off? Preempt any conversation by letting them know you’ll be in listening mode, soaking up everything that they’ve got to share.
Celebrating your achievements at work is especially important in the early days of returning to work after maternity leave or a prolonged period of absence. This is the time when a “have done” list can be much better than a “to do” list. While a “to do” list reminds you of everything you’ve got left to do, a “have done” list allows you to celebrate everything you’ve done. Make sure you include reflection in your “have done” list: “Write down three things that you’ve done, or that happened, that have gone well, and why they’ve happened,” explains Jessica. “That’s a really nice way to focus on what has been done, rather than what’s outstanding.”
She adds: “Why it’s gone well is so important. Because when you focus on why something has gone well, you have to pay attention to your habits, your agency, and understand that it wasn’t just luck. You might write down, that you had a really great conversation with your line manager who really understood that this is a big step for me coming back to work. When you reflect why did that happen? It happened because you’ve got a good relationship that you’ve put time and effort into nurturing”.
Boundaries are absolutely crucial for maintaining a healthy work life balance at the best of times, but when you throw kids into the mix, it’s even more important for avoiding burnout and looking after your mental health. But when it comes to setting boundaries in the workplace, it’s important that boundaries are something for you to know, rather than something you advertise.
Jessica suggests thinking about how you frame your new approach to working slightly differently: “Don’t tell people what you can’t do. You tell them about what you can do. So for example, if you know that you’re changing your work hours, or that you need to leave at 5pm, and you used to be one of the last to leave the office, it’s going to be a bit weird. Don’t start saying I’m going to hold my boundaries, you know, and tell everyone “I leave at five now”, say something like “make sure to grab me before 4.30 if there’s anything that you need”. So what you’re not saying is “I don’t work past five o’clock”, or “I leave the office at five”, you just gently say “make sure to catch me before half past four”.
Actually, Jessica says make that the first month after returning to work after maternity leave: “Do not have big social events in your diary, do not plan christenings, or going to other people’s big shindigs. Because you just need to decompress at the weekends and in the evenings. The only place you should be going is somewhere that people are going to take care of you. So go where you can be cosseted, looked after nourished and nurtured”.