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What Companies Need to Know to Retain New Moms

Returning to work can be especially complex for new mothers

A woman working on her laptop with a baby in front of her.

​Re-entering the workforce after a significant time away for any reason can be difficult. New mothers returning to work after childbirth and women who have taken a career break to have children, however, experience a unique set of stressful challenges.

Tracy Saunders, a diversity recruiting expert and the CEO and founder of Pittsburgh-based Women's Job Search Network, a community for female job seekers, calls the manifestation of these emotional and financial stresses "return-to-work syndrome."

In a conversation with SHRM Online, Saunders talked about how employers can help women cope with it.

SHRM Online: What is return-to-work syndrome?

Saunders: It's a culmination of the fear, worry, shame, confidence loss and trepidation women experience when returning to work after an absence—most commonly felt after childbirth and [during] motherhood. Of course, returning to work for the broader population can be a challenge, but I wanted to focus specifically on women and new mothers. The particular emotional strain around new mothers' returning to work and the lack of resources around the issue has not been sufficiently dealt with. And many employers avoid having conversations around sensitive topics. It's time to address additional stressors new moms feel that, without support, may cause talented women to quit.

SHRM Online: What are some of the difficulties mothers experience when returning to work?

Saunders: There's something very specific happening with new moms. I know—I've lived it. I had kids [twins] later in life, while I was at the height of my career in tech recruiting. In addition to the existential wonder, confusion and hormonal chaos that came along with being a new mom, my children's health and survival was always on my mind. If I had been on a tight maternity-leave schedule, I couldn't have returned to my job. But I had already felt pressure to leave my last job due to complications with my pregnancy. So, I wanted—and needed—to return to work quickly. My boys were only days out of the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] when I took a contract job at one of the world's most well-known tech companies. The workforce suddenly felt different to me. I felt isolated and alone in my worries, while it seemed everyone around me was focused on what they'd have [for lunch] in the cafeteria that day. Our sitter would call with crying infants or when oxygen monitors were going off. I'd leave for lunch to go home to help. It was incredibly overwhelming, and I felt very alone.

Returning to work for new moms presents some obvious challenges, and it's time to address them. We know about postpartum [depression] and separation anxieties, but there are so many more things, like pumping [breast milk], bottling issues, handing your child over to a day care worker, the significantly increased financial burden of day care and the blur of sleep deprivation. If employers don't begin to address the emotional and financial issues new moms are facing, women will continue leaving the workforce.

In addition, women with children who return to the workforce are concerned about being judged. There's the "maternal wall," the motherhood equivalent of the glass ceiling that all women face. The maternal wall is a way of stereotyping a working mother. Working moms are treated differently or perceived differently than women who are not mothers, and some employers see mothers as less capable to perform, produce and remain committed to work than others.

SHRM Online: What can employers do to help women dealing with these issues?

Saunders: There are plenty of things companies can do. The main thing is to recognize that there will be additional pressures on women returning to work. Not just financial or day care issues, but emotional issues like separation anxiety and stressors that can lead to depression.

It's time employers create programs for returning moms, offer mentors and resources. If you have a high-potential employee go out on maternity leave, it's important you support them in their return. Companies should consider breast-feeding rooms, additional bonuses for day care, and optional extensions in case the transition is taking longer. Additionally, sensitivity training and opportunities for other employees to support new moms will go a long way toward retaining women.


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