Supporting Mothers in the Workplace

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Balancing a career with raising a family can be a serious challenge – especially for new mums. Sleepless nights, colicky babies and sore bodies make for a trying time in the first few years of motherhood. Add to this the responsibilities of a full-time job and something has to give.

To find out what mums struggle with most and how employers can make their lives easier, we surveyed 1,000 British mums with children under 16. We then spoke with Jessica Heagren, CEO at That Works For Me, a supportive platform for flexible work that aims to help women stay in the workplace after childbirth, to gain insight on how HR professionals and managers can respond to the findings.

What Issues are Mothers Facing?

Our research revealed several serious issues that still face women in the workplace after they have children. Despite the introduction of shared parental leave as a legal requirement in April 2015, women are still bearing most of the responsibility for childcare. Mothers are currently taking 24 times more parental leave than their male counterparts, according to our survey.

Women take an average of 12.5 months maternity leave following the birth of a child, whilst two-thirds of men (67%) take less than two weeks off work. One in five men (22%) took no paternity leave at all.

After this break from work, most women found the transition back to the office difficult. 9 in 10 (88%) of those who return to work face problems when doing so. The most common of these were:

  • 54% struggled to balance their time between childcare and work
  • Over half (52%) felt guilty at spending so much time away from their children
  • One-third (33%) struggled to cover costs of childcare
  • One in ten (12%) suffered from mental health issues in relation to their return to work

The consequence of these problems is severe for businesses as well as employees. Almost half (49%) of women reduced their hours after having children, so they could better balance family and work life. A further 19% left their jobs altogether due to the difficulties they faced. This represents a huge loss of knowledgeable and experienced staff across UK industries, who may have stayed in employment had more steps been taken by employers to help them.

Respondents to our survey were clear about what could have been done to make their transition back to work easier, and to support them in their position long term:

  • Almost half (46%) wanted more flexible working
  • 30% wanted an increase in paid maternity leave
  • One in four (26%) want to work remotely
  • One in five (20%) want an onsite creche

By working to introduce some of this feedback, businesses can improve staff retention, therefore maximising on training and other investments made in their employees. For many of these points, mothers would not be the only beneficiaries and positive effects would be felt throughout your company.

Balancing Parental Leave

With the introduction of shared parental leave by the British government in 2015, we expected an upswing in the amount of paternity leave being taken. But government reports from 2017 suggest that the uptake of shared leave could be a low as 2%.

Jess Heagren says that “one of the biggest problems in this area is the attitudes of businesses themselves, manifested at the top and at a managerial level”. She suggested that there are several things HR managers and business leaders should be doing to make their staff more comfortable with the idea of shared parental leave. One of the most important things she highlights is training. “So much time and money can be wasted on getting maternity issues wrong. Get it right first time by effectively training all your people managers on your maternity and paternity policies. Refresh this knowledge when one of your employees or their partner becomes pregnant and support them in their conversations.”

Once awareness has been created in your business, especially among management, Jess suggests that you “consider introducing a ‘new parent’ conversation between managers and their team members. The same conversations should happen with new dads as well as new mums.”

It may be useful for employees to plot themselves on the CIPD profession map for these meetings, so you both understand the value they bring to the company, what will need to be covered in the interim, and why their return to the company is important.

One major issue for mums is being expected to balance work with looking after sick children, attending school plays, picking up from nursery and the vast amount of other activities that often fall to mothers.

Pre-emptively ask fathers in your company if they’d like flexible working to support their co-parent in this and encourage men in management to lead by example. This should trickle down to create a more open culture of balanced parenting responsibilities between men and women.

Creating a Supportive Culture

Getting staff to be accepting and comfortable with shared parental leave is part of a supportive workplace culture, and the two should feed into one another. Work to create a flexible culture in your business, where parents feel able to discuss issues and collaborate with you to find solutions.

Throughout your company, work to eliminate the idea that parental leave and flexible working are negatives and encourage people to get vocabulary right when talking to parents. Recommendations from Jess include avoiding phrases like “baby holiday”, “part-time” and “baby brain”, as they are often alienating for parents.

Similarly, invite parents to all company events and socials, including conferences, even if they are still on parental leave. Even if they are not always able to attend, it will help them feel part of the team and enhance relationships with co-workers.

Coming back to work after parental leave can be a stressful time, both physically and mentally, as the body and mind adjust. One of the key things Jess highlighted about creating a supportive culture for this process was to maintain flexibility – there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution here. Speaking of her own experience Jess says:

“The company I worked for relied heavily on ‘keep in touch’ days, as do lots of organisations. Cited as one of the best tools for keeping mothers engaged in the workplace during their time off, I’m in two minds on this one. Between the lack of sleep, constant nappy changes and torrent of emotion, keeping in touch with work was very much the bottom of my list of priorities. Particularly as I felt unable to string a sensible sentence together. Personally, I just wanted to hole up at home and attempt to get to grips with the demanding little bundle that was my new daughter. This was just me though. I have had friends, colleagues and employees who never wanted to stop hearing about work. They prefer to keep on top of the gossip and involved in all things. To me, this highlights the need to regularly ask what that individual wants, bearing in mind that this is likely to change during their time off.”

Her main suggestion for creating a supportive work culture is to always be as flexible as possible. Let “what suits you?” become your mantra for approaching staff, especially when it comes to parenting issues.

What Can Your Company do to Address Problems?

Flexible Working Hours

Parenting can be unpredictable at times. Sickness bugs, chicken pox outbreaks and school plays are part and parcel of the job and should be expected from time to time.

Despite this, a substantial number of respondents to our survey provided examples of when they had faced derision and hostility when having to leave work early or at short notice to do the school run, care for sick children or attend to other parenting responsibilities.

Flexible working hours can provide an answer to these problems, letting employees work their hours around other important elements in their lives while ensuring work still gets done.

On flexible working, Jess Heagren says:

“The benefits speak for themselves – improvements in retention, happier employees, higher productivity, improved customer service ratings. The ability to provide flexibility for everyone – not just the Mums – is to me an acknowledgement of peoples’ lives outside work – demonstrating belief that employees are more than just a number. Imagine the commitment of the 24-year old single Mum you sponsored through her training and have on your succession plan who you let drop off and pick up her little boy each day. Imagine the reduced likelihood of losing your highly skilled font-of-all-knowledge expert whose mother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when you let him take Thursday afternoons off to take her shopping and cook her dinner. These are not difficult requests to accommodate and yet have an enormously positive outcome.”

Flexi-time takes a huge amount of stress off parents and has massive benefits for staff retention across the board. Allowing people to work hours around other important things in their lives will massively reduce staff turnover and increase staff loyalty. Most people will still want to work a core bank of hours in the day, so you shouldn’t see much change in continuity either.

Remote Working

Remote working sits hand in hand with flexible working hours. For parents, working one day a week from home eliminates a commute and means they are able to work while being nearer their child.

Parents can be in the office during the day, leave for school and nursey runs and then complete their day’s working hours from home after their little ones are in bed.

Remote working does, however, carry both pros and cons, as Jess discusses.

“Remote working is possibly one of the most well-embedded methods of flexibility, but it is still one that is heavily debated. Is there ever any true replacement for face to face time for colleagues? Personally, I think the answer is no, but it definitely isn’t required 100% of the time. Technology is now such an enabler for remote working – Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Skype, Facetime – most of it free and most of it used in our personal lives, that I cannot understand how we could possibly insist on people being in the office all the time.”

More Paid Maternity Leave

Currently, UK companies must leave a position open for staff for 52 weeks after the birth of a child, but not all this time is paid. Statutory maternity pay in the UK is:

  • Six weeks paid 90% of your average weekly earnings
  • 33 weeks paid either 90% of your average weekly earnings, or a maximum of £145.18, whichever is lowest

Unless your contract states differently, any further maternity leave you take will be unpaid.

With one-third of women facing financial difficulties after having children, some may feel pressured to return to work before they are ready. Longer paid maternity leave and better pay will help solve these issues. The benefits of enhanced maternity pay are highlighted by Jess:

“For me, the question is what is the purpose of maternity leave? I think it is to keep our economy going. It is to stop the loss of skill and talent from organisations. It is for equality and parity between sexes. It is to enable us to build solid family units to bring up secure human beings capable of making their own way in our world. And all of that begins with a solid start to life in a stress-free environment as possible.”

Onsite Creches

According to the CIPD, onsite creches exist in less the 5% of UK workplaces (as of 2017). This is despite the incredible convenience they offer employees. Not only do they cut down on commuting, they prevent panics about reaching children should they fall ill and allow more interaction between parents and their children.

Jess Heagren describes the impact an onsite workplace creche may have had after she had a child.

“My journey to and from work was just shy of two hours each way door to door. For the first 6 months of being back at work, I spent every second of those three hours and forty minutes clock watching, imagining exactly what my baby was doing at that time.

If my baby had been downstairs while I was at work, it would have changed everything.  I could have gone back to work earlier, more focused, continued breastfeeding, not missed out on baby time on the commute…the list goes on. What an amazing benefit for a company to be able to offer!”

Although setting up a creche can be complex, tax and National Insurance relief are available for companies who do so, if they adhere to Ofsted regulation. An onsite creche is an attractive addition to a benefits package, which will help to recruit and retain staff, meaning initial investment may be well worth it in the long run.

Where to Find More Information

There are a number of organisations that both employers and employees can talk to for clarity on issues around parental leave and helping to support working parents. Sharing these in new parent meetings can be a great way of building trust and openness with employees, and also gives parents someone to turn to for advice.

Providing managers with these contact lists can also be helpful. Parents can raise a range of issues and it may not be possible to prepare for all of these or to always know the right answers. Managers can use these contacts to find the best course of action and extra support when they are approached with something new.

Giving staff access to external advice can also create a confidently flexible culture when it comes to approaching parenting requests.

Some organisations that may be useful have been suggested by Jess:

About Jess Heagren

Jessica Heagren is Founder of That Works For Me, the supportive and affordable platform for flexible work that brings skilled professionals and SME’s together. Their aims are:

  • To provide support through coaching and mentoring to empower and build confidence within our community to take their step towards flexible work
  • Build freelancers’ platform with a simple user journey
  • Encouraging traditional roles to break into freelance
  • Making consultancy more affordable to SMEs
  • Offering an affordable solution for SMEs to access highly skilled individuals
  • Building trust within the employer and employee to get the task in hand done – not necessarily in the “normal” working hours.

Prior to establishing That Works For Me, Jess worked for a major insurance firm, as the youngest director in the company, before leaving after the birth of her second child.

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