This case study follows someone returning to work on a part time basis after their maternity leave. They discuss the challenges they faced when returning, including a lack of confidence and the feeling of guilt when trying to juggle work and family life.

Did you return to the same role with your employer? If yes, was this agreed beforehand? If no, was this possibility explained to you before your absence?

I am returning to work within the same role but on a part‐time basis. This was discussed informally before I went on maternity leave and confirmed before coming back. The part‐time hours have been granted under a flexible working arrangement with a condition that it is reviewed after three months and that I will have to return to full time hours if it’s not feasible to do the role/best for the organisation.

Do you feel there was an impact on your career progression due to your time off either positive of negative?

I do not think my absence has had an impact on my career progression but then I am fortunate to have a strong role‐model as a manager who has been incredibly supportive of my development/situation.

What impact did your time out of work have on your confidence? How did you overcome this?

Having a career break had a big impact on my confidence – nothing can truly prepare you for having a child/children and if you do not have a support system in place – personally and professionally – then it can be a huge challenge.

We are often our own worst enemies and biggest critics: feeling guilty if we have to leave work early, take last minute annual leave if our child is sick, duck out of networking drinks to do nursery pick up or conversely checking emails while juggling the bedtime routine, finishing a report on your day off and missing a parents evening to travel to a conference.

For me, the first time round, I constantly felt inadequate whether I was at work or at home – like I wasn’t winning at anything. The things I used to enjoy such as public speaking and presenting, debating with colleagues, networking, chairing meetings, in fact taking on any new challenges, actually filled me with dread. After returning to work three days a week I quickly realised it wasn’t possible to do the role justice and within a month I was back four days and within three I was full time again. I figured I wasn’t able to enjoy my days off with my son for constant fear of getting behind at work and checking my phone and spent most evenings/weekends playing catch up so hey, I may as well get paid for the additional hours. My son was thriving at nursery – gaining social skills, an extensive vocabulary and firm friends. I benefited too because the connections my son made, extended my support network too.

In order to try and improve my confidence I opened up to my boss, peers and head of HR. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help for fear of being judged or looking weak but it’s the best decision I ever made. Together we put the following things in place:

  • I took some much needed time off (as I was genuinely at risk of burn out) but on my terms (so continued to work on key projects from home)

  • Sought 360 degree feedback from colleagues (and took it on board and adapted with the help of my manager and coach)

  • Approached a mentor who worked in a different organisation but within my chosen profession, to support my career development and build my knowledge/expertise

  • Gained approval for a series of 1-to-1 sessions with an external and independent coach to help me manage my time better and ultimately improve my confidence. It turns out that my lack of confidence largely stemmed from the fact that I was too afraid to say no to people, did not have faith in my own decision making ability and wasn’t taking care of myself. Going through a coaching/mentoring process can enable you to take back some control, see the wood from the trees and hold up a mirror to yourself. To get the most out of a coaching relationship it is vital to set clear objectives from the outset and go into it with an open mind. Any credible and qualified coach will make sure you do this (there are a lot of charlatans out there, so make sure you choose wisely and do your due diligence).

Did you do any Continuing Professional Development (CPD) during your time out of work? If yes, how do you think this affected your return to the workplace?

I considered it both times around but decided not to put pressure on myself to complete a qualification whilst on maternity leave. I think it’s important to focus on enjoying your maternity leave and your child. I did, however, continue to pursue informal approaches to my CPD – via various LinkedIn groups, industry reports and meeting up with peers etc.

What are your top five tips for other people in your position to ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace?

  1. Create a ‘re‐induction’ plan with your manager, colleagues and HR team to get up to speed with key changes in the business, meet new colleagues, get relevant training etc. Use your Keeping in touch (KIT) days (if applicable) so it doesn’t seem such of a culture shock when you do go back.

    KIT days can ease you in gently and provide a much needed source of income towards the end of your maternity leave. Companies are legally required to offer you ten paid KIT days – which you are under no obligation to complete.

    Returning to work after taking a career break can be like starting a new job, in a new organisation. Companies need to do much more to support returners and actually treat them like new joiners, with no stigma attached. Make sure spend time with your manager/HR business partner to create a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Plan that will support your return in the short term but also your progression in the medium‐long term. CPD doesn’t just have to mean formal learning like courses but peer mentoring, job shadowing, networking etc.

  2. Be kind to and honest with yourself – try not to succumb to guilt too often, as it is inevitable, and cut yourself come slack. Ask for help, seek feedback from others, be solutions orientated, call out poor behaviour in others, make positive recommendations to your organisation about how they can improve your work/life balance and overall company culture. Also, if you feel it’s not working out and you are taking too many compromising which impinge on your physical and mental well-being, then be brave and move on to a new role/organisation.

  3. Ask for a mentor and a coach – try to get sponsorship/approval for both as each offer different and very valuable things to you and your organisation.

  4. Apply for flexible working – whether that’s part‐time, working from home, condensed hours, a job share. You can get creative these days and organisations have to legally consider your request and make adjustments if the case is strong enough.

  5. Strengthen your personal and professional support network – these are both equally important. Connect with other parents who are based locally to you and stay in touch via social media. I set up a WhatsApp group for our nursery class and it’s proven invaluable! Set up an employee community group for working parents at your organisation and make sure they have a voice. Ask your company to sponsor your membership to a relevant association within your profession. Attend events where you can meet people from different walks of life.

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