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4 Tips for a Successful Return to Work From Maternity Leave, Shared Parental Leave and Adoption Leave

Our CEO and Founder, Verena Hefti, has supported hundreds of parents returning to work from maternity leave, shared parental leave, and adoption leave through the Leaders Plus Fellowship Programme. Here she shares 4 tips for a smooth transition back to work.

Navigating the return to work from maternity leave, shared parental leave or adoption leave can feel daunting – it’s totally normal to feel this way! With a little forward planning and some honest conversations, you can take control so things go smoothly.

1. Remember Your Line Manager May Feel Nervous Too

You’d be surprised how many line managers are unsure about how best to support you when you return to work.

HR departments don’t necessarily tell them what good parent support looks like and you may be the first person in their team to take maternity leave or shared parental leave.

One line manager in a global bank said to me “I don’t want to make the mistake to ask any questions that might be illegal to ask a new mum, so I avoid asking altogether what they need”.

As a consequence, too many of them make assumptions about what you want and need and default to formal HR processes such as formal flexible working requests, when in reality all that was needed was an honest conversation between the two of you.

Here’s what I suggest you do:

Suggest a meeting with your line manager before you get back to work. Coach them by asking them what their freshest thinking is about making your return to work a success for them and for the organisation and giving them the chance to ask questions.

You could share with them anything you have read that makes a good return to work and ask them what they think about it (our checklist which is available here is a useful starting point).

Try to bring any implicit assumptions to the forefront. For example, your manager may assume that you don’t want to attend the board meetings anymore now you have a young child as they are in the evening, but you actually might really want to be there.

Spell out the obvious! For example, they may not realise that you find it difficult to attend an 8am ward round as your nursery only opens at 8am.

It’s good if a line manager has read the organisational policies, but, what you really need is that informal support where they back you up when things get difficult.

You need them to be flexible and adopt a ‘how can I help you’ attitude when you get that call at 11am saying that nursery has closed for two weeks due to a COVID case.

Your line manager is probably the most important person in your return to work, which is why I have specifically designed the Leaders Plus Fellowship to include a workshop with your line manager where you can discuss the way you work together.

If you aren’t a Fellow, then our free Return to Work checklist has some useful practical things to cover in your discussions with your line manager before returning to work.

2. Don’t Forget That Your Employer is Lucky to Have You Back

It is absolutely normal to feel a bit overwhelmed at the thought of exchanging nappies for a laptop again.

If you are suddenly doubting whether you have ‘still got it’, you are not alone.

Many of the Fellows (who I have had the privilege of supporting) say that they did have moments where they felt an utter lack of confidence in returning to work.

Remember this – you are still you.

Take the time to write down your top 5 achievements at work before you left, and the strengths that you have shown in these situations.

In my experience having a period of time out of work often helps to give you space to be more strategic, to understand better what is and isn’t essential. In all likelihood, this will make you a better leader and better at your job because you will be more focused on the end outcomes.

Also, your employer benefits financially from you returning!

If you didn’t come back, your employer would have to replace you. This would not only cause them a headache but, it’s expensive to recruit and induct someone.

Depending on which stats you quote, recruiting and inducting someone new can cost them anything between £30’000 and twice your annual salary.

And don’t forget to remember all the countless skills that you have learned on parental leave and are bringing back to the office.

Endless patience in the face of challenging stakeholder expectations (read: baby constantly changing her mind) and flexibility and quick thinking in unexpected situations (read: another poonami just before baby class starts) being two good examples.

Our Fellow Ruth Stuart who is Head of Strategy Development at the CIPD has written this brilliant blog about why being a mother has made her a better leader which might be useful to read.

3. Work Out What You Need and Where You Can be Flexible

If you were anything like me when I was pregnant with my first baby, I definitely was a workaholic who found it difficult to switch off the computer. But, now as a working parent, you are probably factoring in things like pick ups from nurseries and childminders which means you have no choice but to down tools and leave.

What to do:

First of all, think carefully about what your red lines are, these are things that are really important to you and your family, like being there for pick up.

Next, write down what your ideal work arrangements look like to fit in with these red lines.

It’s also useful to think about when you’re happy to have some flexibility. 

So, for example, say you work part-time and never on Fridays, but one month the board meeting happens to fall on a Friday and you would really like to be there – are you are happy to move things around to accommodate this?

Then, have a discussion with your team and your boss where you clearly share with them what you want to change, what your red lines and are, and what your ideal is.

Don’t apologise for it but instead, explain how it helps the whole team.

You may want to explain how you will support a positive working culture for everyone by making those shifts and how it gives your team a chance to work more independently, being held accountable for results rather than having you check if they have dotted all the i’s and crossed every t.

I’ll say it one more time. Please don’t apologise! Remember, productivity is definitely not linked to just being present, as Alex Pang explains more eloquently on our Leaders With Babies podcast.

I firmly believe you don’t need to work part-time to be a good parent, and you don’t need to work full-time to be a good leader, but if you are planning to move part-time after parental leave, this podcast with Laura Harrison has some good tips on how to manage your workload.

4. Finally, Don’t forget the Transition at Home

If you have been on maternity leave or shared parental leave, you may well have taken responsibility for the day-to-day life admin things, such as loading the dishwasher or completing the nursery registration forms.

If you have a partner, he or she may not realise all the tasks you do on a daily basis in addition to keeping a little human alive and entertained. Also, evidence shows that he/she will have a critical impact not only on how you feel on your return to work but also on your long term career progression. That is why I was adamant from the very first year when I set up the Leaders Plus Fellowship that we needed to have workshops for partners as part of the Programme.

Here’s what to do: 

If you have a partner, sit together and make a list of everything that needs doing in the house and for family administration to keep everything running smoothly.

Agree who is responsible for what, and make sure that you agree not just on tasks but also allocate accountabilities.

Recognise together that this is a transition, and that you may need to review things once you’re back at work and settled into more of a routine.

This podcast with Elizabeth Emens (the author of a book on Life Admin), has some helpful tips on how to do that and you may also enjoy the podcast with Jennifer Petriglieri on couple relationships when you both have busy careers.

I hope these tips have been helpful and I wish you the best of luck on your return to work. Please do let us know how you get on.


How Leaders Plus Can Help You With Your Return to Work 

Leaders With Babies: Returning to Work Courageously Panel Event

You may be interested to attend our Leaders With Babies: Returning to Work Courageously panel event on Thursday 14 January at 9am. Hear from our panel of Fellows who have combined senior leadership careers with young children about how they have managed their return to work, what mistakes they have made and what they have learned along the way about returning to work with courage. Click here to secure your ticket. 

Return to Work Checklist

Our free Return to Work Checklist is a great resource packed with lots of helpful tips on what to think about before you schedule your return, key questions to ask your line manager (including how best to frame any flexible working requests), and common pitfalls to avoid when returning. Click here to download the checklist.

Leaders Plus Fellowship Programme

The Leaders Plus Fellowship is a 9-month online programme specially designed to support working parents so they can stay on the leadership pipeline at work whilst enjoying their young families. Fellows have access to a senior leader mentor, a supportive group of like-minded peers, and specialist workshops to support you in your career development as a working parent.  It’s often described as “like NCT for professionals.” Find out more about the Programme here.


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