Many working mothers have no choice but to return to work soon after having a child due to financial demands. Despite increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, subtle or subconscious prejudice can occur toward women who are returning to work following maternity leave. Managers may perceive them to be less committed due to the challenges of working while balancing family responsibilities. And, women often report that the transition back to work is difficult. Many returning mothers feel disconnected and disengaged upon their return to their job.
“Many working mothers have no choice but to return to work soon after having a child due to financial demands.”
“Organisations may talk about creating a workplace culture that is supportive and inclusive of women returning from maternity leave…”
Creating a culture of support
Organisations may talk about creating a workplace culture that is supportive and inclusive of women returning from maternity leave but, too often, view pregnancy as a resource burden and so miss out on the opportunity to truly support female employees who return after this leave of absence. One way to be supportive is to create a plan for returning moms before their leave begins. Managers should work with employees to ensure there’s a sensible return plan in place prior to their departure.
Another way is to stay connected during an employee’s maternity leave. Women who are away for several months (at a life-changing time in their lives) could well disengage and find it hard to re-engage on their return. It is purported that women who were already engaged and satisfied with their job are more likely to return to work after their maternity leave.
The support of like-minded colleagues can be very beneficial. New working mothers may feel isolated in their challenges. Others may simply want to share their experience with other colleagues. Organisations can help by creating a community of parents – a shared environment for all things parenting that includes resources and discussions on how to make the transition back to work easier.
Management plays an important support role
It is also purported that many highly talented women will leave the workforce because they feel unsupported by their manager or team leader. It is important to train management on how to help female employees returning from maternity leave as they transition back into work. It is vital to make sure the lines of communication are kept open, and that returning female employees feel free to come to them with requests and concerns. Upon their return, making an employee feel welcome, valued and appreciated will not only benefit them and have a positive effect on their productivity, it will have the knock on effect of demonstrating the organisation’s inclusive culture and adding value to your company in the sight of other employees.
“Upon their return, making an employee feel welcome, valued and appreciated will not only benefit them and have a positive effect on their productivity, it will have the knock on effect of demonstrating the organisation’s inclusive culture and adding value to your company in the sight of other employees.”
Return to work programmes may ease the transition
Some companies have efficient return to work programmes that aim to ease the transition. Flexibility is the key. Empower your management with the authority to negotiate flexible work programmes with women returning from maternity leave, if need be. These could include:
- Remote work – although this is already prevalent in today’s world of work
- Compressed work weeks
- Reduced hours
- Job sharing
What should future-orientated maternity leave policies look like?
Effective implementation of workplace policies targeting pregnancy, parental leave and return to work will support efforts to reduce discrimination and promote diverse workplaces. Despite some progress being made, mainly due to increased awareness surrounding gender equity in the workplace and within South African society, women still bear a higher proportion of responsibility when it comes to childcare. While South Africa’s maternity leave policies and benefits compare well against many other countries, Human Resource Managers should take a forward-looking approach when updating maternity leave policies. Maternity leave policies of the future should seek to lessen the effect that childcare responsibilities have on mothers.
To be effective, maternity leave policies should be completely gender free and rather encourage a balance between genders. The most progressive employers will offer mothers who are returning to work after maternity leave more flexible working arrangements that allow both parents to better balance their responsibilities. Some companies are even looking at alternate leave structures for new parents, such as cumulative maternity leave benefits, progression in the number of leave days where parents need to take care of more than one child and reduced working hours.
“Longer paternity leave of several weeks or months would help to promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.”
Paternity leave in South Africa
While South African mothers are currently entitled to four months’ maternity leave and employees who contribute to UIF are also eligible to receive that benefit, fathers are only entitled to ten unpaid working days of paternity leave. Longer paternity leave of several weeks or months would help to promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and increase gender equity at home and at the workplace. Paid parental leave for fathers, as well as for mothers, would provide a real advantage to working families.
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