Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

A survey reveals eight in 10 women are reluctant to go back to their jobs following maternity leave. Managing the transition is key, says Helen O’Callaghan.

SHE’S a maelstrom of emotion, her mind a whirl of must-get-dones and what-ifs. She has been at home with her baby — the new centre of her life — for the past 10 months and now she’s facing back to work.

Will the childcare arrangements she’s so carefully put together work out? Will baby be upset? Will she be upset? 

Will she be up for the job when she goes back? What if her colleagues don’t take her as seriously as they did? Or has her replacement has done a better job?

Last year, more than 44,000 new mums received maternity benefit. Now, a new online survey, conducted in association with , shows most new mums would delay their return to work if they could. 

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

More than half (54%) took either all or some of the 16 weeks unpaid leave at the end of their maternity leave. Fewer than 4% said they didn’t want to take it, while 42% couldn’t afford to.

Overall, women were reluctant to return to the workplace (nearly eight in 10 cited ‘financial’ as their main reason for returning) — 63% said they were apprehensive, while a further 22% admitted to being devastated. 

Barely 1% said they couldn’t wait to get back to work and 13% reported being ready for it. But four in 10 said if they didn’t have to work, they wouldn’t.

The transition back to work is particularly hard after a first baby, says coaching psychologist and author of Brilliant Career Coach Sophie Rowan. 

“When you go on leave, you enter a different head space. Essentially, you’re flexing a different set of muscles when you’re on maternity leave. Going back to work, you almost have to relearn your work persona.”

Johanna Fullerton, MD of Dublin-based SEVEN, Psychology at Work, led research last autumn on Managing Maternity in Ireland, which looked at how to maximise reintegration and retention of talent post-maternity. 

She says women typically take six to 11 months leave post-childbirth and that they will have experienced the psychological turbulence of transition heaped upon transition.

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

“They’ll have had a year of transition. First, the professional transition out of the workplace. Then the baby’s born and there’s a personal transition to parenthood and, before the woman knows it, she’s facing the transition back to work as a parent.”

On a basic level, the new mum will have experienced hormonal and physiological changes — including mood and weight shifts — says work and organisational psychologist Patricia Murray, who isn’t surprised 63% of women felt apprehensive at the thought of returning to work.

“The smart ones are apprehensive — it’s an adaptive emotion. They’re foreseeing difficulties in advance, knowing ‘I’ll need to adapt’. It’s a way of getting ready,” she says.

And for the new mum, who must multitask as never before, there’s plenty to get ready, even logistically. 

The survey found 66% of mothers worried about childcare. Three in 10 started batch-cooking, almost 15% employed a cleaner and 5% bought a slow cooker.

Re-entering work, they worried they’d be put in a different role (27%), that their replacement would be better than them (19%), their work wouldn’t have been done (15%) or their desk/work area would be left in a mess (eight percent).

“Many mums return feeling unsure, threatened, fearful — it’s generated by lack of confidence: ‘will I be able to operate like I did before?’,” says Rowan.

Their fears aren’t groundless — the world of work moves at a frenetic pace in many organisations and returnees are expected to get comfortable fast with change.

“You’re gone out the door a week and your organisation is hurrying along and you’re away for up to 12 months. Women often return to a changed environment — new people, processes and rules. 

"And because she’s been there before and isn’t a new recruit, she’s expected to settle straight back in and start performing.”

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

Compounding the challenge for some new mothers is a tendency to be over-sensitive, perhaps because they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Murray sees many post-maternity returnees, with confused identity issues. 

“Maybe because half of them is back with the baby. They feel misidentified, that they’re not seen as who they are.

“At the beginning, many perceive negatives — ‘I used to get on great with my boss/colleagues, now I’m having conflict with them’. When I assess the workplace and talk to their colleagues, it isn’t the case that they’re being treated negatively. 

"It’s that they’re not identifying with the workplace in the way they used to — sometimes their feelings of unease aren’t down to other people but to their own changed circumstances and conflicting roles [of mother and worker].”

Murray mostly sees the tendency in mums of first babies. “Many women realise ‘when I came back after the first baby, I was a bit off, not my usual self’. It takes a while to re-configure.”

Having returned to work, almost 62% of mums surveyed said their stress levels were higher than before they’d had their baby. 

Almost 68% said their energy levels were lower, nearly three in 10 said their confidence was lower and four in 10 reported lower concentration.

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor isn’t surprised. “The challenge of organising childcare and trying to combine work with family life is still falling on women’s shoulders.”

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

She says there’s no statistical difference between men’s employment pre- and post-children, whereas there’s a vast difference in women’s employment.

“It’s especially so in families with two children. [After a second baby], you see a big change in women’s work — either going part-time or not going back at all.”

No legislative provision exists in Ireland for paid paternity leave. “By not having statutory father’s leave, a clear message is being sent about who should be doing the caring,” says O’Connor.

Both parents are entitled to 18 weeks unpaid parental leave for children aged up to eight. But uptake by dads is low. 

The RecruitIreland survey found only 18% of dads had taken it, while 15% didn’t know they could. Even in workplaces offering paternity leave, almost 17% of dads didn’t know it was available.

Just before or upon their return to work, 28% of women met up with colleagues for a ‘catch-up on office gossip’. Sophie Rowan says the transition back will be easier if a woman keeps in touch with her workplace.

A woman might plan to “keep in the loop through Mary, my best friend – she’ll keep me posted on any changes or updates”. 

Rowan recommends women connect with their line manager ahead of taking leave. 

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

“She might say: ‘look, I’ve been working on this project for a few months — could you keep me posted on how it goes?’”

Murray also advises popping into the workplace — and not always with baby. 

“Maybe once with baby, another time without — so you can be the old you and have lunch with colleagues.”

Dropping into the office a week before returning is a chance to check your seat and desk are still yours — on your first day back you don’t want to find “a picture of someone else’s baby on your desk and the drawer locked”, says Murray, who recommends employers contact the returnee the week before she’s due back.

“Send an email: ‘Hi, you’re back in Monday — is there anything we can do that’ll make your first day easier?’ The woman might ask if she can come in at 10am. Her employer could say ‘yes — I’ll meet you that morning and make it an easy day back’. This shows trust and commitment on both sides.”

According to the Managing Maternity in Ireland research, 42% of women felt their organisation hadn’t handled their maternity leave well; just 11% felt it had been handled ‘very well’. 

Fullerton recommends employers see maternity leave as “a significant talent-management opportunity” rather than as a “short-term operational problem to be solved”.

Her research found a skewed focus of attention on pre-maternity leave — and neglect during and after it. 

“All attention seems to be on ensuring the person exits appropriately, supporting them around benefits and the handover plan. This is important — but so is contact during their leave.”

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

She points to British legislation around Keeping in Touch (KIT) days. 

“When the woman’s on maternity leave, there are certain days when she keeps in touch with the organisation. This eases the transition back — and it helps her hit the ground running once she’s back.”

IBEC has a Maternity & Parenting Toolkit to assist employers in managing their workforce during pregnancy, maternity leave and upon return from maternity leave. 

Dr Kara McGann, organisational psychologist with IBEC, recommends employers ensure someone meets the woman on her first day back. 

“Make sure her desk and computer are ready, with logins. Have a meeting set up with HR to bring her up to speed.”

New mum and employer should look realistically at what level of flexibility is manageable in her role. 

“Many organisations focus on outputs so they can be more flexible about where work is done. Perhaps more flexible comings and goings — many women need to leave at a certain time to collect children. But they could pick work up again two hours later.”

A buddy system — where the returnee gets to meet and chat with a colleague who’s been through it herself — can be a practical support, says McGann.

“A buddy’s a friendly ear providing some shared experience — ‘How did you settle back into the work routine?’ ‘How did you manage breastfeeding at work?’. Realising you’re not the only one is a good counter to feeling overwhelmed.”

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

Can women have it all — children and career? McGann believes the definition of success and having it all is complex for women. 

“For women, it’s not enough to have a career unless they find meaning in their work, as well as satisfaction with the balance elsewhere in their lives.”

Mum-in-residence at Laura Haugh says a lot of mums change career after children. 

“Many report an epiphany — they need to be doing a job they love if leaving their children for it. Some use their maternity leave to up-skill or retrain.”

But for most women their economic circumstances — mortgage repayments, bills and pensions — mean they will be heading straight back to the job they left. 

And with a baby on board, considering a career change may simply be too stressful.

For anyone dreading the return to work post-baby, Murray has some reassuring words — it’s not the work, it’s the transition back you’re dreading.

“This is a period of rapid learning. You have to rapidly adapt, let go of the old and be on your toes for the transitional period.

“What you’re dreading is the change from this to the other. Four weeks in, a lot of women say ‘I love being back. I’m into it now. I didn’t know what I was missing’.”

‘Surprised at how nice it was to be back with colleagues’

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

Dublin-based Sara Lindberg returned to her job at an IT solutions company last March. She and partner Karl have one child, 17-month-old Ellie. 

“I took all the leave I could — 26 weeks paid, 16 unpaid, all my holidays and six parental weeks, a year altogether. I had mixed emotions going back. It was hard leaving Ellie in someone else’s care. 

"We had a two-week settling-in period at the creche before I went back. When I left her for the first full day, it hit me — someone else is going to be taking care of my baby. I was in tears. 

“Part of me wanted to go back to my job because I like it, but I went back more for financial reasons. 

"Prior to returning, I worried my maternity leave would be seen as an absence, that it would take a long time to get back into the work and that the level of seniority I’d built up would be gone — that I’d be seen as new again. 

“My company has been very accommodating. They expect you to give 100% straightaway, which is hard when you’ve been away that length of time. I’d agreed I’d work four days a week and I can decide my hours. I work 8am to 4.30pm, so I can collect Ellie from creche. 

“Initially, I was surprised how nice it was to be back with colleagues. I’d missed the chats you have with peers. There’s a quick turnaround of people at work —– many of the people I’d worked and made friends with had either left or moved on in their job. It took a while to get to know the new people but I’m a social person so it wasn’t a problem. 

“I still feel ‘mammy guilt’ even though I know Ellie’s thriving in the creche. I’m still adjusting to the change four months on, trying to get the structure of the day right.”

‘I don’t suffer mammy guilt - but it can be stressful’

Getting back in the workforce after maternity leave

Based in Portlaoise, Vicky Cain has just started work as SNA in a secondary school. 

Husband Sean works as a fitter with Irish Rail. They have two children, Evan, 4, and Robyn, eight months. 

“With Evan, I took a year and a half out. I made a conscious decision not to look for work. We were financially able to do it. 

Now I’m starting work with Robyn who is eight months. The main concern is financial. My husband has had pay cuts. There are extra costs with two kids and with Evan going to school. 

“It’s also to get me out of the house, so I can have some sanity with two kids under me. 

“I’m originally from Waterford and Sean’s an only child — we have no support network, apart from my father-in-law. He’s looking after Evan after school and drops Robyn to crèche at 8am. 

“My stress levels are up because I’ve got an hour’s commute. I have to be organised the night before — my husband works shifts. I don’t want to get delayed at work or in traffic because the creche closes at 6pm. 

“I don’t suffer ‘mammy guilt’. I did a little with Evan but Robyn’s such a placid baby. We live in an old estate without many kids so creche gives her a chance to socialise.”


We know porridge is one of the best ways to start the day but being virtuous day in, day out can be boring.The Shape I'm In: Food blogger Indy Power

Sheila O’Flanagan can’t pin down an exact number of books she has written.First lady of fiction: Sheila O'Flanagan is happy to be accessible

This might not be the most entertaining topic but it is that time of year when colds, flus and nasty bugs enter classrooms and homes.Mum's the Word: Top tips for keeping nasty bugs and illnesses at bay

Laura Whalen is a Munster-based dollmaker and mother-of-five, and the founder of the Bábóg project, a community crafting drive to make a commemorative doll for all the babies born in Irish mother and baby homes.Made in Munster: Meet the West Cork dollmaker who uses bio-degradable materials for her craft

More From The Irish Examiner